Maximum Sentence Urged for Cunningham

By Charles R. Babcock and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) "bullied and hectored" Defense Department officials to ensure that two contractors who were bribing him "received their pound of gold" and profits of up to 850 percent, federal prosecutors contend in a new court filing that urges a federal judge to give Cunningham a maximum 10 years in prison when he is sentenced tomorrow.

But defense attorneys countered in court documents that Cunningham, 64, is depressed and suicidal and should receive a six-year term, in recognition of his service as a Navy pilot who once shot down three enemy planes over North Vietnam in a single day.

Cunningham resigned from the House after pleading guilty in November to tax evasion and conspiracy to take $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors and two New York businessmen in return for setting aside, or earmarking, federal money for them in spending bills. Mitchell J. Wade, one of the contractors, pleaded guilty last Friday to four felony counts for his part in the scheme.

In arguing for the maximum prison term, prosecutors in San Diego filed e-mails, memorandums and grand jury testimony late Tuesday to demonstrate that Cunningham's crimes cost the government millions of dollars because the contractors overcharged for equipment and services.

The filing included copies of Cunningham's earmark requests for increased funding for programs two contractors worked on, and e-mails from his staff members expressing his anger when some of his requests were cut. "I am under my desk ducking and covering," one once wrote to another.

The documents recount how Wade and the other contractor, who has been identified as Brent Wilkes of San Diego, allegedly worked together in 2004 to bill the government $6 million for computer equipment that could not be used for a counterintelligence center. Wade's company pocketed $678,000 with no material expenses, while a subcontract gave Wilkes's company a $4.7 million profit, the filing said.

The prosecutors also cited several instances in which Cunningham and his staff pressured Pentagon officials to release earmarked money to the contractors' companies. A Defense Department official said he told Cunningham in 2000 that $750,000 in bills from Wilkes's company appeared fraudulent. The congressman cut the phone call short but later repeatedly phoned the official's supervisor to complain about how the contractor was being treated, according to the document.

Saul J. Faerstein, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist hired by Cunningham's attorneys, concluded after a 5 1/2 -hour examination of the former House member last month that he "now manifests evidence of a Major Depressive Disorder with suicidal ideation."

Faerstein traced many of Cunningham's physical and mental ailments to his time in the Navy. For example, injuries sustained when he ejected into the Gulf of Tonkin after his F-4 fighter jet was hit over North Vietnam in 1972 have left him with "chronic pain and limited mobility," he wrote. Cunningham also has osteoarthritis and in June 1998 received a diagnosis of prostate cancer that required surgery and radiation.

The psychiatrist said Cunningham's severe depression and anxiety began in mid-2005 as the corruption investigation closed in on him. But he saw its roots in the former congressman's heroic exploits as a fighter pilot. Being "praised and rewarded for his conduct" gave Cunningham "a sense of omnipotence which was an adaptive psychological defense mechanism," Faerstein wrote.

Thus Cunningham "came to the job of Congressman with the outsized sense of ego and a mantel of invulnerability. . . . The process of rationalizing his behavior blinded him to the corruption it entailed, and led him to behave in ways totally antithetical to his life history," the psychiatrist concluded.

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