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Cunningham Friends Baffled By His Blunder Into Bribery
Navy Ace-Turned-Congressman Didn't Act Like Big Spender

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.

But according to "Fall From Glory," a book about the naval Tailhook Association's bacchanalias, Cunningham's superiors questioned his leadership abilities and resisted giving him a permanent commission. (He eventually got one.) The book, by Gregory L. Vistica, reports that Cunningham once broke into a superior's office to read his own fitness report but was spared discipline because the Navy did not want to generate bad publicity.

After briefly working in business after the military, Cunningham was courted in 1990 by the GOP to run in an affluent Republican district. His high name recognition and gung-ho conservative credentials carried him to a narrow victory over the Democratic incumbent. He has been reelected handily ever since.

From his arrival in Congress in 1991, Cunningham was branded as volatile and a flamethrower who challenged members to fistfights -- and not someone slated for leadership.

Packard, who sat with Cunningham on the Appropriations Committee, said he had a short fuse. Early on, Packard recalled, Cunningham became angry and emotional at a California delegation meeting when it became clear he did not have the support for a committee assignment he sought. "He was extremely upset and threatened to quit Congress. That was the first indication that he didn't have control of his emotions," Packard said.

Then there were the biting attacks on colleagues -- mainly partisan -- for which he usually apologized.

In 1992, Cunningham suggested that the Democratic House leadership should be "lined up and shot." A few years later, a House debate over water pollution turned ugly when Cunningham said lawmakers backing a particular amendment were the same people who support "homos in the military."

During remarks in his district in 1998 to a gathering of prostate cancer patients, Cunningham commiserated by describing a rectal procedure he had undergone as "just not natural, unless maybe you're Barney Frank."

"He was a blustery fool," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay. He said Cunningham apologized to him for the remark and noted that he thought Cunningham had "calmed down" in recent years.

On his first trip back to Vietnam, Cunningham sat down with Vietnamese officials for a formal dinner, and his first words of the evening were: "You gooks shot me down."

"It's not exactly the way to start a diplomatic dinner," said Moran, who was on the trip with Cunningham. "I told him quietly that he had bombed them, too."

Those close to Cunningham say the gaffes coupled with the charges create a caricature, and not the man they know -- the kind individual who sent an aide home the minute her grandfather died and a softie who fretted over his dog's health when the animal was injured. One Navy friend, George Nesby, said that as an African American, he will forever be loyal to Cunningham for giving him support and promotions as a young pilot.

Cunningham's legal troubles were triggered when the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in June on his 2003 lucrative house deal. He sold his Del Mar, Calif., house for the inflated price of $1.675 million to "Conspirator No. 2," -- identified through other sources as defense contractor Mitchell Wade of MZM Inc. -- who then sold it at a $700,000 loss nine months later. Cunningham was charged with using his influence to award federal contracts to MZM in return for payoffs.

The housing transactions did not go unnoticed by neighbors. "We all knew it was a shady deal as soon as we saw it," next-door neighbor Kent Greene said. "The market stated very clearly it [$1.675 million] was not an appropriate price." Victoria Konopacke, who bought a house across the street three months before the Cunningham sale, said, "We bought ours for $915,000, and I hate to say it, but ours is a lot nicer than theirs."

Congressional ethics laws prohibit members from accepting any largess over $100 per year from any one source, and only $50 at one time. While the rules are sometime subtly skirted, rarely so in such a blatant fashion.

"I think the only defense he could possibly have is stupidity," said Samuel L. Popkin, a professor of political science at University of California at San Diego, who has followed Cunningham's career. "But he's smart enough to know the rules -- which he thinks don't apply to him."

A friend had another explanation: "I know what happened, and I know how it happened," Nesby said. "It's really very simple. In the political arena, what at first seems abnormal becomes normal. . . . It's very easy in this environment for one to lose their moral compass."

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