Cunningham Friends Baffled By His Blunder Into Bribery

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

For those who have observed Duke Cunningham's behavior in Washington for 15 years, especially those who have felt his scorn, his remorseful exit from the House last week carried no surprises. Since his early days in Congress, Cunningham's behavior has been predictable: ad hominem attacks followed by tearful apologies.

In one now-famous incident, Cunningham and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) got in a shoving match over sending troops to Bosnia. Moran confronted Cunningham, triggering a partisan melee among other members -- and Cunningham fled.

Moran found him crying in the cloakroom.

"I thought he had been bullying too many people for too long, and I told him so," Moran recalled. "He said he didn't mean to be so accusatory. . . . After that, he would bring me candy from California."

Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, can no longer smooth over his bluster and lapses in judgment with a See's Candies party assortment. The eight-term congressman and decorated Navy pilot resigned his seat Monday after tearfully confessing to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors that included $100,000 in cash, a Rolls-Royce and a 42-foot yacht. He pleaded guilty in federal court and awaits sentencing Feb. 27.

The news -- the sheer magnitude of the graft -- was met with incredulity throughout Washington. How could Cunningham, a member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, have been so stupid, so craven, so greedy? Even President Bush weighed in, calling the crimes "outrageous."

Cunningham, who turns 64 next week, and his wife, Nancy, a school administrator, are back in California and have no plans to return to Washington, a source close to them said. He no longer has a home, having agreed to forfeit his personal property related to the bribery. He is staying with family until he knows what the future brings. He has apologized to his staff.

No one could say for sure why this Vietnam War hero went astray, when he stopped living on his $158,000 salary, how he thought he could get away with driving a Rolls-Royce and moving into a $2.5 million house in Rancho Santa Fe with the financial help of a defense contractor. The allegations make no mention of debts or financial troubles -- just high living: a contractor's credit card for a leather sofa and a sleigh bed; a $1,500 gift card for a pair of earrings; a new boat, "Duke-Stir," docked at a slip in Washington; and a graduation party for one of his two daughters. (He has a son from his first marriage.)

Those who worked for Cunningham and who have associated with him on the Hill said they saw none of the trappings of extravagance. His biggest joy, they said, was skeet shooting, for which he won an award from the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus. The joke at his office used to be, one former aide said, that he shopped at Costco and bought three of everything to save money. A defense lobbyist who knows Cunningham well and golfed with him said that the congressman never had his hand out with him. "I'm just stunned," the lobbyist said. "He was a 'dems' and 'dose' kind of guy, a little rough around the edges -- a regular guy."

A source close to Cunningham's office pointed out that the Rolls-Royce was not in great shape, and that because Cunningham had previously lived on a boat, the new one did not draw any attention. "It's not like he was sitting around in a silk smoking jacket," the source said.

If someone suspected what was happening, few are talking. Unlike the allies of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby who jumped to his defense last month after the former White House aide was indicted for perjury, Cunningham's friends seem to be distancing themselves. Republican Hill chums -- such as California Reps. Duncan Hunter and Jerry Lewis -- did not respond to requests for interviews. Former representative Ron Packard (R-Calif.) said he felt betrayed, having believed Cunningham's denials for months and publicly defending him. Packard said he found the charges "beyond comprehension."

Cunningham's career in politics began like those of other high-profile war heroes -- catapulted into the profession by name recognition and his district's appreciation for his patriotism. He had enlisted at age 25, after a stint as a high school swim coach, and became the Navy's first ace pilot of the Vietnam War and a legend after shooting down five enemy planes. He was shot down once, and avoided capture with great daring. He earned medals for valor, including the prestigious Navy Cross, before retiring from the military in 1987.

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