Monday, December 05, 2005

Right-Wing Nutjob Turns Out To Be Corrupt Right-Wing Nutjob. But I Repeat Myself.

The newspaper version of this week's column is here. Meanwhile, I have now written the Fiesta Bowl out of my will (like they were there anyway) for choosing Notre Dame over Penn State. I have no specific expertise on whether we'll get a better or worse football game, but I can clearly state that the parties here just won't be as good with the Barash-Coppersmith-Fredman family going to the Orange Bowl instead.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 4, 2005

Funny how people who know so much about governing two countries (the U.S. and Iraq) had absolutely no clue Randy “Duke” Cunningham was thoroughly corrupt.

Cunningham was an 8-term California GOP congressman who -- after promising to fight the charges -- admitted taking bribes and resigned his seat. It was guaranteed to end badly when, as the initial charges became public, Cunningham was called a “hero” and “an honorable man of high integrity” by Tom DeLay. Takes one to know one.

Duke’s a crook -- and one who liked to impugn other people’s honesty and patriotism, like when he said House liberals should be “lined up and shot,” or made crude jokes about a gay colleague, or called Rep. Pat Schroeder a “socialist,” or said President Clinton was a “traitor” and that “Tokyo Rose had nothing over Clinton.”

Cunningham also sponsored the “No Frills Prison Act,” which was a sound-bite masquerading as a bill, pretending to do away with unnecessary prison amenities. He’ll now get examine the problem, from the inside, for up to five years per guilty plea.

With so many legal ways of taking money from lobbyists and government contractors, like funneling money to a foundation sponsoring “educational” trips to Scotland’s golf courses or hiring your wife as a lobbyist, it’s amazing that Cunningham just took out-and-out bribes. The story broke when newspapers reported that in 2003 Cunningham sold his home to Mitchell Wade, president of defense contractor MZM Inc., for $1.675 million. Wade then sold the house several months later, during a housing boom, for $700,000 less. A local realtor, who wrote a letter justifying the sale price, was a long-time Cunningham campaign contributor. To top it off, Wade also let Cunningham stay for free in D.C. on Wade’s 42-foot yacht, the aptly-named “Duke-Stir.”

There was more -- Cunningham made about $400,000 in profit selling a boat to businessman Thomas Kontogiannis, who had been convicted of embezzlement and who says he sought Duke’s advice about getting a presidential pardon. Another defense contractor, Brent Wilkes of ACDS Inc., gave Cunningham use of his boat. Duke also took payments to cover the capital gains tax he incurred when he sold his former house to Wade, to pay for his daughter’s graduation party, and for $30,000 for purchase and repairs to a Rolls-Royce he bought in 2002.

But that was just the cash. Cunningham also got some surprisingly frou-frou gifts: three antique nightstands, a leaded-glass cabinet, a washstand, four armoires, and one buffet. But my favorite is an antique 19th century Louis-Philippe commode, valued at $7,200. (For those not up on congressional corruption or French, a commode is a chest with drawers, not the other device.)

It all added up; according to the indictment, in 2004 Cunningham reported taxable income of $121,079, when his actual income (including bribes) was at least $1,215,458.

So what did Cunningham do to “earn” that money? He used his perches on the House Defense Appropriations and Intelligence committees to stuff money in appropriations bills that could be steered, then leaned on officials at the Pentagon to give contracts to MZM and ACDS. But how does just one congressman, even a well-placed senior one, manage to steer millions in contracts to people paying him bribes?

Part of the answer may be in the magic words “war on terror,” which can cloak a multitude of sins, including financial ones. The Defense Department’s classified budget has increased significantly (about 48 percent) since 9/11, to $26.9 billion this fiscal year. While any member of Congress can go to the secure room in the Capitol to study the secret spending, in practice nobody does -- so the “black budget” can be a wonderful place to hide things that can’t stand the light of day, like unnecessary contracts to companies paying bribes.

So the next time you hear members of Congress bloviate about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse, ask how much time they’ve spent reviewing the black budget before approving $26.9 billion of spending. And ask how good a job they did in uncovering the blatant corruption of one of their colleagues, Duke Cunningham.

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