Image: Randy "Duke" Cunningham
Mike Blake  /  Reuters file
Former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison by a federal judge on Friday for accepting kickbacks from government contractors, was an acclaimed fighter pilot in Vietnam.
updated 3/4/2006 6:00:27 PM ET 2006-03-04T23:00:27

As a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam, Randy “Duke” Cunningham became a legend for fearlessly diving into aerial combat, his aggressiveness seemingly held in check only by gravity.

Years later, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he tested a different kind of limit — his own capacity for excess.

The man who had represented the wealthy suburbs north of San Diego was sentenced Friday to eight years and four months in federal prison. After resigning from the House in disgrace, he pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes — a crime without peer in congressional history.

“I have ripped my life to shreds,” the 64-year-old Republican said in court.

The former top-gun pilot accepted bribes of lavish homes, a Rolls-Royce, a $140,000 yacht and expensive home furnishings from defense contractors eager to buy his help to secure government contracts.

Among his illicit trophies was a 7,628-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, one of America’s wealthiest communities.

‘Death-defying acts’
What motivated a red, white and blue war hero and congressman, after a lifetime of acclaim and achievement, to turn to crime?

Cunningham’s attorney described his motive simply: greed.

A psychiatric report submitted by the defense also said Cunningham suffered from depression. And it referred to his military career in which honor came from “ignoring danger signs and performing perilous and death-defying acts.”

There was a different expectation for behavior in Congress, but “the psyche cannot make such a U-turn easily,” wrote the psychiatrist, Dr. Saul Faerstein.

In order to fill the role of hero or superhero, “the normal sense of mortality is suppressed in order to fulfill this role,” Faerstein suggested.

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U.S. District Judge Larry Burns noted that Cunningham could have earned a bundle by simply retiring from Congress and giving speeches or becoming a lobbyist or corporate executive, like so many of his former House and Senate colleagues.

“You weren’t hungry and yet you did these things,” Burns said.

Cunningham was ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for back taxes. He also must forfeit an additional $1.85 million for cash bribes he received, plus the proceeds from the sale of his mansion.

Betrayed by arrogance
Cunningham was a man of modest means when he arrived in Washington as a freshman congressman in 1991, but he fashioned a life of splendor. His home in Washington was later determined to be another bribe provided by a defense contractor.

Fighter pilots are accustomed to risk-taking and even recklessness. Observers say the recognition and privilege that come with the job can lead to a sense of entitlement, sometimes arrogance.

Cunningham claimed, falsely, to be the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character in the movie “Top Gun.” He once challenged Democratic leader David Obey to a fist fight on the House floor. He pushed for legislation to require stiff sentences for criminals, then found himself facing prison.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said she sees Cunningham’s case as part of a long history of congressional wrongdoers that includes Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who pleaded guilty in 1996 to two felony mail fraud charges and served 15 months in prison.

“It’s part of what happens when you reach power and can exercise power for a long period of time. You become separated from the reality that laws do apply to you,” Jeffe said.

The evidence against Cunningham showed a calculating figure.

A prosecution memorandum included a copy of a “bribe menu” written on his House stationery. One column of figures represented the millions of dollars in contracts that could be “ordered” from Cunningham, according to prosecutors. A second column showed the amount of bribes he demanded in return.

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