Cunningham's Enablers

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It is tempting, and certainly convenient for his former colleagues in Congress, to dismiss Randy "Duke" Cunningham as an aberration. He is, in a sense: As prosecutors told the judge who is to sentence Cunningham this week, the California Republican engaged in "unparalleled corruption." The ordinary lawmaker can't be bought for the price of an antique armoire -- or, in Cunningham's case, nine armoires, six Persian carpets, three antique oak doors, two candelabras and a china hutch.

A fighter-pilot-turned-congressman-turned-felon, Cunningham took the gold in brazenness and gluttony. He extorted a Rolls-Royce from a defense contractor and parked it in the congressional garage. He had the contractor buy his California house for a hugely inflated price and then demanded extra money to cover capital gains taxes and moving expenses. He offered volume discounts for frequent bribers, helpfully writing out the fee schedule on his congressional letterhead. In all, he raked in an astonishing $2.4 million in graft.

But if Cunningham is unparalleled, he is also symptomatic. The corruption scheme he was at the center of exposes systemic flaws that will persist well after he is behind bars: the seductive availability of millions in earmarked funds, the corrosive combination of money and politics, the easy slide into an egomaniacal sense of entitlement for lawmakers surrounded by staff and sycophants. The system didn't cause Cunningham's corruption, but it undoubtedly facilitated it.

Last week's guilty plea by Cunningham's co-conspirator, defense contractor Mitchell Wade, illuminates the way easy access to earmarks can corrupt even without bribes -- or, to be a bit more blunt, with the legal bribes known as campaign contributions. The plea agreement describes how Wade wanted his company, MZM Inc., to open a facility in the district of Virginia Republican Virgil Goode (Representative A, in the language of the plea). MZM employees contributed $46,000 to Goode's campaign from 2003 to 2005, making the company his single largest source of campaign cash. Unbeknownst to Goode, but also unsurprisingly, Wade illegally reimbursed his employees and their spouses for their contributions.

And then -- surprise -- Wade asked for federal funding for the facility he wanted to build in the district. As described in the matter-of-fact language of the plea agreement, "In June 2005, Representative A's staff confirmed to Wade that an appropriations bill would include $9 million for the facility and a related program. Wade thanked Representative A and his staff for their assistance." You bet he thanked them: a $9 million contract for a mere $46,000 in contributions -- in comparison with Cunningham's prices, a real bargain.

The link between campaign contributions and legislative favors wasn't exactly understated. The plea agreement describes Wade's dinner with "Representative B" -- Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) -- at which they discussed "the possibility of MZM's hosting a fundraiser for Representative B later in the year, and the possibility of obtaining funding and approval for a Navy counterintelligence program in Representative B's district and locating an MZM office in that district." Subtle, huh? Wade didn't get his funding, but that doesn't make the seamy intersection between campaign cash and legislative favor-seeking much less distasteful.

Prosecutors said Harris, like Goode, wasn't aware that the $32,000 she received from MZM employees and spouses was secretly underwritten by Wade -- though he turned up with the checks in hand to deliver them to her personally. Did she and Goode think that all these MZM employees from outside their districts had spontaneously come to the realization that they were the best two members of Congress? When someone who has never given campaign donations suddenly decides -- along with a spouse -- to write out checks for the maximum donation, something fishy is up. When you need the cash, though, there's not much incentive to sniff too hard to discern precisely how odoriferous it is.

If the system discourages politicians from questioning the sources of their campaign cash, it also encourages them to behave like potentates, cosseted by fawning staff. An analysis by UCLA psychiatrist Saul J. Faerstein, submitted to the court by Cunningham's lawyers, concludes that the fighter pilot's "sense of grandiosity" and "mantle of invulnerability," while "adaptive and life-preserving in Vietnam," were "maladaptive" in the Washington culture. With all due respect to the doctor, if he thinks an "outsized sense of ego" is unique to Cunningham among members of Congress, he probably hasn't met too many.

Indeed, the sentencing memo -- prosecutors are asking for 10 years -- illustrates how Cunningham's staff enabled his corruption. When Cunningham bought a Chevy Suburban from Wade for well below the market price, his staff altered the title registration application to increase the sales price -- though Cunningham never paid the higher amount. A top aide delivered a cash-stuffed envelope from Wade to Cunningham. When the aide finally confronted Cunningham about these shady dealings and asked him to resign, or at least not seek reelection, the congressman pondered the matter and decided to stay on.

And here's a tale of what passes for principle in Washington: The staffer didn't turn him in -- he quit. He's now a lobbyist, specializing in -- you guessed it -- defense and appropriations.

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