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California Congressman Admits Taking Bribes


That issue, among others, will be debated before a Congress that does not include Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The California is resigning from the House of Representatives, and yesterday he pleaded guilty to tax evasion as well as taking part in a bribery conspiracy. The congressman was helping two small defense contractors get business in Washington at the same time he was receiving more than $2 million in money and gifts. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Duke Cunningham was first elected in 1990, a tough-talking former Navy carrier pilot, an ace in Vietnam and a role model for the movie "Top Gun." But last spring, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a businessman bought Cunningham's house in San Diego and lost $700,000 reselling it in a hot market. Meanwhile, Cunningham moved up to a $2 1/2 million home.

More problems emerged. Cunningham kept a yacht on the Potomac River. A businessman bought it from him, and another businessman supplied a new one. He named it `The Dukester.' Cunningham lived on board when Congress was in session. As questions kept coming up, Cunningham last July said he'd done nothing wrong.

Representative RANDY "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM (Republican, California): I have acted honorably and in the performance of my duty in Congress. This truth will be evident in time.

OVERBY: But yesterday, what was evident was this:

Rep. CUNNINGHAM: The truth is, I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office.

OVERBY: Cunningham faces up to 10 years in prison. His sentencing date is February 27th. The plea agreement lays out a scheme too complicated to explain away. Money flowed from four co-conspirators, none of them named in the plea agreement. Cunningham got the house, the yacht, a Rolls-Royce and other treats. He laundered cash through his company, Top Gun Enterprises, to evade taxes. Meanwhile, small defense firms headed by two of the co-conspirators prospered as Cunningham promoted them to the Pentagon and pushed money for them in legislation.

Carol Lam, US attorney for the Southern District of California, said the facts are clear.

Ms. CAROL LAM (US Attorney): This was a crime of unprecedented magnitude and extraordinary audacity.

OVERBY: But the FBI special agent in charge, Daniel Dzwilewski, said Cunningham's case is not an indictment of the entire political system.

Mr. DANIEL DZWILEWSKI (FBI Agent): The overwhelming majority of public servants adhere to their oath and faithfully fulfill their duties and enforce the laws to the best of their abilities each and every day.

OVERBY: Yet Cunningham's admission comes after another plea bargain in another congressional ethics probe. Washington consultant Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty last Monday to a sweeping conspiracy charge. He implicated his former partner, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and a congressman, Republican Bob Ney of Ohio. Abramoff and Scanlon had close ties to other lawmakers, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Cunningham's case is unrelated to Abramoff, but polls already show that Americans think Congress doesn't look out for ordinary people. Colgate University Professor Michael Johnston teaches a course on political corruption. He expects that a scandal involving big houses and big boats will linger in people's memories.

Professor MICHAEL JOHNSTON (Colgate University): This is the kind of case that, long after Cunningham's name has been more or less forgotten, helps drive that particular wedge deeper, helps make citizens feel that they and their values just don't count for a whole lot.

OVERBY: And that's something Democrats want to capitalize on. They've already dubbed it `a Republican culture of corruption.' But that argument probably won't fly back in the conservative district Cunningham represented. He said last summer he wouldn't run again. So far, seven Republicans have lined up to succeed him and just one Democrat.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.