Legislator Pleads Guilty
In Bribery Case and Resigns
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham ( R-Calif.) resigned from Congress after tearfully confessing to evading taxes and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode.
The decorated Vietnam War-era fighter pilot, 63, entered his guilty plea to a federal court in San Diego.
His plea marks the second conviction in a week to emerge from a wave of federal investigations into the cozy -- and potentially illegal -- relationships between leading members of Congress and lobbyists and contractors working to curry legislative favors. In an unrelated investigation, former public relations executive Michael Scanlon, an associate of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to conspiring to bribe a congressman and other public officials. Scanlon agreed to pay back more than $19 million he fraudulently charged Indian tribes.
Scanlon and Cunningham have agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
Cunningham, a member of the influential House Appropriations defense subcommittee and the intelligence committee, signed a plea agreement that requires him to forfeit his house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; $1,851,508 in cash; and a long list of furniture and carpets.
-- Charles R. Babcock
and Jonathan Weisman
Flu Vaccine Stockpile
The government expects to stockpile nearly 8 million doses of an experimental vaccine against pandemic influenza by February, and studies are underway that could stretch that supply to cover more than a third of the population, federal health experts said.
That unusually rapid clip reflects the high priority the Bush administration has placed recently on preparing the nation for a catastrophic flu outbreak.
In the worst case, scientists said, the vaccine being manufactured now would immunize only 4 million people, each of whom would need two shots a month apart. That means the vaccine would probably be restricted to critically needed personnel who would keep the government and public-safety services running during a pandemic.
-- Justin Gillis
Merck to Close 5 Plants
And Eliminate 7,000 Jobs
Merck & Co. announced plans to cut 7,000 jobs and close five plants to save as much as $4 billion over five years.
The drug manufacturer characterized the actions as the first phase of a worldwide restructuring aimed at lowering costs, improving efficiency and boosting competitiveness.
Merck will face a major blow to sales when its cholesterol drug Zocor loses patent protection next year. Its troubles are complicated by lawsuits related to its painkiller Vioxx, which the company pulled from the market after its own study found that long-term use could increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Merck won one case in New Jersey and lost one in Texas, where a jury ordered the company to pay $253 million to the family of a man who died after using Vioxx.
-- Steven Levingston and Ben White
Justice Department Decides
Texas Redistricting Was Illegal
Justice Department lawyers concluded that the landmark Texas congressional redistricting plan spearheaded by Rep. Tom DeLay (R) violated the Voting Rights Act, according to a previously undisclosed memo. But senior officials overruled them and approved the plan.
The memo said the redistricting plan illegally diluted black and Hispanic voting power in two congressional districts. It said the plan eliminated several other districts in which minorities had a substantial influence in elections.
"The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect," the memo concluded.
The memo also found that Republican lawmakers and state officials who helped craft the proposal were aware it posed a high risk of being ruled discriminatory.
But the Texas legislature proceeded with the new map anyway because it would maximize the number of Republican federal lawmakers in the state, the memo said. The redistricting was approved in 2003, and Texas Republicans gained five seats in the U.S. House in the 2004 elections.
-- Dan Eggen
Transportation Security Agency
To Allow Scissors in Carry-Ons
The Transportation Security Administration will allow passengers to bring scissors and other sharp objects in their carry-on bags because the items no longer pose the greatest threat to airline security.
TSA Director Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley announced changes at airport security checkpoints that would allow scissors less than four inches long and tools less than seven inches long.
The TSA says its new policy changes are aimed at making the best use of limited resources. TSA officials now want airport screeners to spend more of their time looking for improvised explosive devices rather than sharp objects.
Officials believe that other measures in place, such as hardened cockpit doors, would prevent a terrorist from commandeering an aircraft with box cutters or scissors.
However, many flight attendants do not believe sharp objects should be let on board. They argue that the items could be used as weapons against passengers or flight crew members.
-- Sara Kehaulani Goo
White House Pledges
Response on Secret Prisons
The Bush administration pledged to respond to a formal inquiry from the European Union over reports of covert CIA prisons for al Qaeda captives in Eastern Europe, acknowledging for the first time that the controversy over the secret prison system had upset European allies.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, writing on behalf of the European Union, sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a letter seeking "clarification" about the matter, the British Embassy said. Franco Frattini, the union's top justice official, has warned that any E.U. country discovered to have hosted CIA prisons will face "serious consequences," including losing its E.U. voting rights.
"The United States realizes that these are topics that are generating interest among European publics as well as parliaments, and that these questions need to be responded to," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
McCormack said Rice assured new German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a meeting that the United States has not violated either its own laws or international treaties, but he sidestepped questions about whether the prisons -- the existence of which he did not confirm or deny -- violate European laws.
The Washington Post reported last month that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe as part of a covert prison system.
-- Glenn Kessler