The Duke of D.C., Unhorsed

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 3, 2005

Not that it will matter all that much to him, but I accept the sincerity of Randall Harold Cunningham, aka Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), late of the U.S. House of Representatives, as he stood outside the federal courthouse in San Diego this week and tearfully acknowledged that he had done some pretty slimy deeds, which, if the wheels of justice grind exceedingly fine as expected, will have him adorned in a prison jumpsuit breaking big rocks into little rocks for a long, long time.

But what I am still unable to fully comprehend is the sheer magnitude of the man's audacity when he was riding high in the House.

Residents of the District of Columbia -- and even those in environs beyond -- may appreciate that of which I speak after learning about the event that transpired on Sept. 25, 2001. On that date Cunningham took chutzpah to heights unknown to humankind.

Scene: The floor of the House. Matter under consideration: The fiscal 2002 D.C. appropriations act. Speaker: Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

The California Republican was explaining to the assembled legislators why, after eight years on the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, he had volunteered to stay there. He said he had joined the subcommittee at the time of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry ( "Berry," according to the Congressional Record.) Said Cunningham: "I thought what better place can we make some changes."

Don't you dare laugh.

Cunningham then proceeded to touch on an area of city life that caused him much unhappiness when he first joined the subcommittee. Leasing arrangements for boat slips on the District's Southwest waterfront were, he said, his chief concern. Then he laid this whopper on the House: "The City Council at that time was taking money under the table to support leases."

Now, let us pause.

This newspaper, the record will show, has chronicled over the years an agglomeration of scandals involving officials of high and low estate in the District government. But D.C. Council members taking money under the table to support leases on the Southwest wharf was, I thought at the time, a new one. It was also news to our research department, which, at my request, conducted a search for such stories. I also discussed Cunningham's revelation with council Chairman Linda Cropp and the city's first elected council chairman, Sterling Tucker. They were also stumped by his charge.

I turned to Cunningham's office for evidence at the time, too. His staff was no help. I asked to speak with Cunningham, but he was unavailable. I left a message explaining my request. Cunningham never called back.

His non-response is not, however, the reason that his charge against the council is in retrospect an unrivaled example of gall.

Consider this: When Duke Cunningham took to the House floor to denounce a past D.C. Council as crooked, he was at that very moment well into corruptly seeking and receiving bribes from two co-conspirators in return for being influenced in the performance of his official duties. His criminal acts are spelled out in the plea agreement Cunningham signed with federal prosecutors.

In fact, Cunningham the Corrupt, according to his plea agreement, had embarked upon his life of crime at least a year before he took to the House floor to malign the District's legislators.

In truth, congressional characters such as Cunningham have their way with the city. They can get away with saying or doing anything. Listen, for example, to Cunningham's reference to former D.C. mayor Barry during a D.C. appropriations subcommittee hearing two years ago:

Cunningham: "The other area that I worked on was the education facility, all the way back from Marion Berry [sic] where most of the money went up his nose instead of toward the education system ." Yuck, yuck.

Listen also to Cunningham, in the same public hearing, shamelessly put the arm on a local economic development witness:

Cunningham: "My brother was the President of the Chamber of Commerce in St. Peters, Missouri, right outside of St. Louis. He's looking for a job here in D.C., so if you've got an opening in the Chamber, I'll give you his resume."

D.C. Witness: "It would be great, Mr. Chairman [sic]. We'd be glad to advance that."

Cunningham: "He also ran the seeder program in Texas, so he's got a lot of experience."

Cunningham used his perch on the D.C. appropriations subcommittee to habitually badger the mayor and city officials to improve the Southwest waterfront and the area of the Washington Marina where he lived rent-free on a 42-foot yacht named "Duke-Stir" that a co-conspirator bought in 2002 and reportedly moved to Cunningham's slip for his personal use. And city officials responded to him as if he were lord and master.

Defy Cunningham? As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he had a hand on the city's purse strings. He had more say over how D.C.-raised taxes were spent than did D.C. taxpayers themselves.

Despite pocketing bribes under the table, Cunningham could still maliciously and falsely slam D.C. lawmakers from the vantage point of his congressional glass house, secure in the knowledge that no city official would dare toss a stone.

The San Diego Union-Tribune started the chain of reports that brought him down. Were it not for that, the Duke might still be here in the District, lording it over D.C. leaders, accusing them of greed and a piggishness that he practiced with unfettered abandon himself.

kingc@washpost.com


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