Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, an eight-term congressman and hotshot Vietnam War fighter jock, pleaded guilty to graft and tearfully resigned Monday, admitting he took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors to steer business their way.
“The truth is I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my office,” the 63-year-old Republican said at a news conference. “I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, most importantly, the trust of my friends and family.”
He could get up to 10 years in prison at sentencing Feb. 27 on federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud, and tax evasion.
Investigators said Cunningham, a member of a House Appropriations subcommittee that controls defense dollars, secured contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for those who paid him off. Prosecutors did not identify the defense contractors.
Cunningham was charged in a case that grew out of an investigation into the sale of his home to a defense contractor at an inflated price.
The congressman had already announced in July — after the investigation became public — that he would not seek re-election next year. But until he entered his plea, he had insisted he had done nothing wrong.
Cunningham’s plea came amid a series of GOP scandals: Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas had to step down as majority leader after he was indicted in a campaign finance case; a stock sale by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being looked at by regulators; and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was indicted in the CIA leak case.
The Democratic National Committee was quick to respond to the latest of Republican woes.
“Cunningham is just one more example of a party that has lost its moral compass and replaced it with a treasure map of personal and special interest gain,” Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney said in a press release. “America can do better.”
Cunningham’s office refused to comment.
“This is now a personal matter for the congressman and his family,” Cunningham’s Chief of Staff, Harmony Allen, said.
Cunningham, a swaggering former flying ace with the Navy during the Vietnam War, was known on Capitol Hill for his interest in defense issues and his occasional outbursts.
Over $2 million in bribes
In court documents, prosecutors said Cunningham admitted receiving at least $2.4 million in bribes paid in a variety of forms, including checks totaling over $1 million, cash, antiques, rugs, furniture, yacht club fees and vacations.
Among other things, prosecutors said, Cunningham was given $1.025 million to pay down the mortgage on his Rancho Santa Fe mansion, $13,500 to buy a Rolls-Royce and $2,081 for his daughter’s graduation party at a Washington hotel.
“He did the worst thing an elected official can do — he enriched himself through his position and violated the trust of those who put him there,” U.S. Attorney Carol Lam said.
Cunningham was allowed to remain free while he awaits sentencing. He also agreed to forfeit his mansion, more than $1.8 million in cash, and antiques and rugs.
The case began when authorities started investigating Cunningham’s sale of his Del Mar house to defense contractor Mitchell Wade for $1,675,000. Wade sold the house nearly a year later for $975,000 — a loss of $700,000 in a hot real estate market.
Prosecutors did not specify if the house purchase was part of Cunningham’s guilty pleas.
In addition to buying Cunningham's home at an inflated price, Wade let him live rent-free on the congressman’s yacht, the Duke Stir, at a yacht club. Wade’s company, MZM Inc., also donated generously to Cunningham's campaigns.
Around the same time, MZM was winning defense contracts.