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Former Congressman Gets 8 Years for Taking Bribes


In San Diego, former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced today to eight years and four months in prison for taking bribes from defense contractors. Cunningham had already pleaded guilty to taking nearly two and a half million dollars, and resigned from Congress. This sentence was longer than Cunningham had hoped for. But short of the maximum 10-year sentence that could have been imposed. NPR's Scott Horsley was at the courthouse and joins us now. And Scott, eight years and four months, what did the judge say to explain this length of the sentence?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well prosecutors had painted Duke Cunningham as a man who had everything. Fame as a former top gun fighter pilot, a powerful position in Congress. And yet, who traded that in favor of bribes from defense contractors. And that seemed to weigh heavily with the judge. Judge Larry Alan Burns contrasted Cunningham to the uneducated and poor defendants he sees every day. And he said to the Congressman, you weren't wet, you weren't cold, you weren't hungry, and yet still you committed this egregious crime.

He also, the judge worried about the effect that this had had on the Pentagon. He felt that tax, a lot of taxpayer money had been spent for materials that contractors bribing Cunningham were supplying that the Pentagon hadn't asked for, didn't need, and in some cases never used. And lastly the judge said he felt that this had done damage to public confidence in the political system.

BLOCK: Well what did Duke Cunningham have to say before the judge in arguing for a shorter sentence?

HORSLEY: Well, the Congressman expressed great remorse for what he had done. He said he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for his crimes. And that if he were released today, which he knew was not possible, that he would be a model citizen. His defense team had also suggested that the Congressman's crimes of the last five years or so, should be put in the longer context of his life. And the judge did give weight to Cunningham's service as a decorated fighter pilot in Vietnam.

In fact, the judge recalled being a high school senior in the early '70s, and worried about the draft himself at a time when Duke Cunningham was fighting enemy MIGs. And he said some weight should be given to that.

BLOCK: Take us back a bit, Scott, and remind us how investigators became aware that Cunningham was taking bribes in the first place.

HORSLEY: Well, it went on for many years before they were aware of it. It's kind of surprising that Congressman Cunningham was living a quite lavish lifestyle, and that wasn't noticed. He was parking a Rolls Royce in the Congressional parking garage, he was living in a two and a half million dollar mansion here in San Diego, all on a Congressional salary. But it didn't get much attention until last summer, when the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper reported a suspect real estate deal in which one of the defense contractors had purchased Cunningham's old San Diego house for what turned out to be a wildly inflated price, and then immediately turned around and sold it.

Now it was only after that article appeared that investigators began looking deeper into the Congressman's relationship with the defense contractors.

BLOCK: Well this sentencing today wraps things up for Duke Cunningham. What about other people involved?

HORSLEY: Duke Cunningham was one of at least four co-conspirators named in this, in this conspiracy. One of those co-conspirators, Mitchell Wade of the defense firm MZM entered his own guilty plea last week. And in doing so, he sort of expanded the range of the investigation, because he talked about not only the role of the contractors and the Congressman, but a role for officials within the Department of Defense. And Mitchell Wade also admitted making illegal campaign contributions to two other lawmakers, Virgil Goode of Virginia, and Katherine Harris of Floida. Although prosecutors have said those lawmakers were not aware that the campaign contributions were illegal.

BLOCK: So is the investigation ongoing

HORSLEY: It certainly is.

BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley reporting from San Diego. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.