Brazen Conspiracy

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

YESTERDAY'S guilty plea by Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- make that former representative, since he resigned after entering the plea -- reveals the most brazen bribery conspiracy in modern congressional history. A San Diego Republican and Vietnam War veteran who served on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and the intelligence committee, Mr. Cunningham admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors angling for government contracts and from two other co-conspirators.

The bribes are breathtaking in their scope, audacity and sheer greed: Payments for Mr. Cunningham's yacht and his Rolls Royce. Silver candelabras. A leather sofa. Two Laser Shot shooting simulators for $9,200. A graduation party for the congressman's daughter (for only $2,000).

Mr. Cunningham not only sold his Del Mar, Calif., home to a defense contractor at an inflated price of $1.5 million; he then jacked up the price an additional $175,000, hid the defense contractor's participation by removing his name from the sales agreement, took a $115,100 check to cover the capital gains taxes and had the defense contractor pick up $11,000 in moving fees. Then the two defense contractors paid more than $1 million toward the mortgage on Mr. Cunningham's new home.

The defense contractors and other conspirators aren't named in court papers, but one of them is apparently Mitchell J. Wade of D.C.-based MZM Inc. Though MZM was created in 1993, its business didn't begin to take off until about 2002 -- after Mr. Cunningham started taking the bribes. Since then, it has received $163 million in government contracts since 2002 for vaguely worded intelligence programs.

The court papers filed in the case, jaw-dropping as they are, don't address a critical question: How could this happen? To some extent, it's hard to guard against out-and-out corruption and criminality by someone bent on breaking the law; as the court papers describe it, the congressman and his co-conspirators worked to "conceal and disguise" their activities "by directing payments through multi-layered transactions involving corporate entities and bank accounts." Mr. Cunningham also lied on his financial disclosure forms and filed false tax returns.

But there are also indications that the system failed. Mr. Cunningham's ability to pull off this caper was helped by the fact that lawmakers don't need to list their homes or mortgage debt on financial disclosure forms; such a listing might have provided an earlier clue to the wrongdoing. More fundamentally, the papers say that Mr. Cunningham used his influence in the congressional appropriations process to benefit the contractors and "took other official action to pressure and influence" Defense Department personnel to give contracts to his co-conspirators. This case ought to spur an overhaul of the congressional appropriations process, which has become infected with the kind of earmarks that breed corruption. The Pentagon, in its turn, may need to strengthen its processes to withstand the pressure of an influential congressional appropriator.

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