Former San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham last week was granted an early release from post-prison monitoring by the very same federal judge who sentenced him to more than eight years in prison, reports the San Diego Union Tribune.
In 2005, the Republican pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges as part of a plea deal after admitting that he had received over $2 million in bribes– accepting cash and lavish gifts from defense contractors in return for using his substantial influence to steer contracts and earmarks towards those who were generous to him.
Congressman Cunningham was a larger-than life figure when I met him back in the late 1980’s. Duke was one of only two aviators to be named a Naval Ace during the Vietnam War for shooting down enemy planes from his jet fighter. He went on to become a flight instructor at MCAS Miramar, better known as TOPGUN.
I remember as an activist leader with Young Americans for Freedom recruiting volunteers and walking precincts as Cunningham took on and defeated a Democrat incumbent Jim Bates by less than 1800 votes.
Yet in office, Cunningham was brazen in his actions. He had a multi-million dollar estate home in posh Rancho Santa Fe, full of expensive trappings. He had a boat on Potomac River in Washington, D.C., named the “Dukester” that turned out to be subsidized by a defense contractor friend for whom Cunningham had played a key role in obtaining $16 million in government contracts.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece of evidence produced by federal prosecutors in the case against Cunningham was a note, penned by Cunningham on his own Congressional office stationary, for the benefit of a defense contractor. In one column he listed millions of dollars in government contracts and in the other he listed the thousands of dollars in bribes to him that would be required to secure the contracts.
I don’t know if it is because he was a genuine war hero who put his life at risk in our nation’s military, or because I had helped in his campaign and developed a personal friendship with him, but when Cunningham was accused of these crimes I was dumbfounded. And when, in the face of overwhelming evidence he pleaded guilty, I was devastated. But very quickly, I became very angry. I felt betrayed: Duke had sold out America.
I penned a pretty strongly worded column over on the FlashReport the day he pleaded guilty, in which I said in bold letter: “Duke, how could you??? If you open up the dictionary to ‘disgrace’–there will now be a photo of YOU!”
From federal prison, Cunningham gave interviews proclaiming his innocence, like this one over at Talking Points Memo where he claimed “that he did not knowingly and intentionally sign the plea because as he explained he ‘had never been in or trained for this battle ground’ and “simply trusted my lawyers.”
The story of the fall from grace of Duke Cunningham is a sad one, and a dark stain on the institution of the United States House of Representatives. If you ask me, eight years wasn’t long enough.
Photo: Lenny Ingelzi/AP