Congressman Admits Taking Bribes, Resigns
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned from Congress yesterday after tearfully confessing to evading taxes and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode.
The decorated Vietnam War-era fighter pilot, 63, entered his guilty plea at a federal courthouse in San Diego and then choked up as he proclaimed: "In my life, I have known great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame."
His plea marks the second conviction in a week to emerge from a wave of federal investigations into the cozy -- and potentially illegal -- relationships between leading members of Congress and lobbyists and contractors working to curry legislative favors. In an unrelated investigation, former public relations executive Michael Scanlon, an associate of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to conspiring to bribe a congressman and other public officials. Scanlon agreed to pay back more than $19 million he fraudulently charged Indian tribes.
A Justice Department inquiry into Abramoff's activities has been broadened to include at least half a dozen lawmakers. Scanlon and Cunningham have agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors as their investigations continue.
Democrats have vowed to make what they have called the GOP's "culture of corruption" a major theme of a 2006 congressional election campaign already unfolding under the twin clouds of the Iraq war and high energy prices.
Prosecutors said Cunningham, an eight-term House member, "demanded, sought and received" illicit payments in the form of cash, home payments, furnishings, cars and vacations from four co-conspirators, including two defense contractors, over the past five years.
Cunningham, a member of the influential House Appropriations defense subcommittee and the intelligence committee, answered "Yes, Your Honor," when asked by U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns if he had accepted bribes in exchange for his performance of official duties.
U.S. Attorney Carol C. Lam told reporters that Cunningham "did the worst thing an elected official can do -- he enriched himself through his position and violated the trust of those that put him there."
Cunningham's conviction and resignation come three years after former representative James A. Traficant (D-Ohio) was convicted of 10 federal charges of racketeering, bribery and fraud and was sent to prison. The House ousted Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers (D-Pa.) in 1980 for accepting money from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik.
The plea agreement, which Cunningham signed the day before Thanksgiving, said he must forfeit his house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; $1,851,508 in cash; and a long list of furniture and carpets. The agreement also stated that he will cooperate "in the investigation and prosecution of others."
Sentencing was set for Feb. 27. Cunningham faces up to five years in prison on each of the two counts he pleaded guilty to -- conspiracy and tax evasion.
At a news conference after his conviction, a visibly shaken Cunningham could barely read from his prepared statement as he admitted: "I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my high office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, and most importantly, the trust of my friends and family."