updated 8/20/2006 12:47:20 AM ET 2006-08-20T04:47:20

The wife of disgraced former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham felt deceived about the extent of her now-estranged husband's corruption, she said in her first news media interview since the scandal broke last year.

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Nancy Cunningham told The New Republic magazine that she didn't question junkets financed by defense contractors because other senior congressional figures, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, joined in.

"How can it be illegal or unethical if the most important man in Congress is doing it?" she asked interviewer Kitty Kelley, the celebrity biographer.

Duke Cunningham, who held seats on powerful House intelligence and appropriations committees, resigned from Congress in November. He was sentenced in March to more than eight years in federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes.

Nancy Cunningham, 54, said in the Aug. 28 issue of the magazine that it was her husband's greed that led to his downfall.

But she dismissed luxury items given to him as bribes -- including yachts, homes and antique furnishings -- as "not that great" and described their $2.55 million estate as "a fixer-upper."

Cunningham compared herself to former First Lady Pat Nixon.

"After Richard Nixon's scandal, she internalized his shame to such an extent that she suffered a stroke and died a miserable death," she said. "He got to live long enough to somewhat vindicate himself, but Pat Nixon got nothing. I will not let that happen to me."

Nancy Cunningham repeatedly referred to her husband in the interview as Mr. Cunningham. "It's mental distancing. As far as I'm concerned, he no longer exists," she said.

The Cunninghams have been married since 1974 and have two daughters. Her attorney said the pair have been separated since July 2005, when FBI agents raided their Rancho Santa Fe home.

She is suing the federal government to recover a share of the financial settlement Duke Cunningham forfeited to the federal government as part of his plea agreement.

Federal prosecutors involved with the case did not return a message left seeking comment.

Cunningham's attorney declined to comment about the article.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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