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The Crookedest Congressman: The Book on Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham

Political scandals are a bit like the weather: there’s always something brewing. But of all the congressmen and senators whose careers have fallen apart in recent years, few have done so as spectacularly as Randall “Duke” Cunningham, the Republican congressman from California who in 2006 was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison after F.B.I. investigators discovered that he had accepted over $2 million in bribes, the largest amount in U.S. Congressional history.

Seth Hettena, an A.P. reporter who covered the scandal, has now written a book about Cunningham, Feasting on the Spoils. Hettena agreed to answer our questions about the book and the long, gloried history of government corruption.

Q: What was the structure of Cunningham’s bribery scheme? How much, and in what form, did he receive payoffs? How did he hide (or fail to hide) the money?

A: Like many criminal enterprises, Cunningham’s bribery started small and grew over time. According to federal prosecutors, the bribes date back to the mid-1990s, when a defense contractor named Brent Wilkes paid for Cunningham’s meals and limousine rides in Washington, lent the congressman a 14-foot motorboat, and gave him quarterly payments of $500 worth of “maintenance money.” In return, Cunningham vowed to “fight like hell” for the defense contractor, who made millions of dollars from funds that Cunningham had earmarked for him.

Things kicked into high gear after the attacks of Sept. 11, when another defense contractor named Mitchell Wade joined the scam and Cunningham’s lifestyle got a major upgrade. The congressman dined on lobster served on private jets that flew him to places like the Coeur d’Alene Resort, or to Miami for a yacht-shopping trip. Cunningham lived in a condo stuffed full of antiques, drove a Rolls Royce, and cruised the Potomac in a $140,000 yacht called the “Duke-Stir,” for which he paid nothing.

Ironically, the most notorious bribe in the case was also one of the cheapest. During a stay at a luxury suite on the Big Island of Hawaii, Cunningham accepted prostitutes on two consecutive nights, a gift from Wilkes. Hiring two women for two hours of sex with the 60-year-old congressman cost Wilkes $600, according to prosecutors.

By 2003, Cunningham was demanding bribes to pay for expensive real estate, which not only landed him in the record as the most corrupt congressman ever, but left a paper trail that would lead to his undoing. His favorite defense contractor bought Cunningham’s home north of San Diego for $700,000 over its market value. Cunningham used the proceeds to buy a $2.55 million mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, one of America’s wealthiest communities. Two defense contractors combined to pay off mortgages of $1.25 million on the home. Added up, the bribes reach at least $3 million.

Many people are surprised to learn that Cunningham was the most corrupt congressman in history. We don’t expect our congressmen to come so cheap, but they do. That has a lot to do with the difficulty in hiding massive amounts of money. I suspect it’s one of the reasons that F.B.I. agents found $90,000 of cash in Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson‘s freezer last year. Cunningham tried to arrange a money-laundering scheme to hide his mortgage payments that was amateurish. Congressmen make bad criminals.

Q: Describe the political climate in which Cunningham rose to power. Was bribery commonplace? Was he simply the most extravagant of a large group of congressmen cheating the law?

A: The Cunningham scandal came in the midst of what will surely go down as one of the most venal and ineffective Congresses in modern history. The 109th Congress was in session for fewer days than any other in our lifetime, and a dozen or so members have since resigned in disgrace or are now facing federal investigations. The unusually high number of investigations seems to indicate that corruption was more prevalent in Cunningham’s time than in recent past.

Cunningham may not have been unique in using the system to enrich himself, but he was exceptionally crude in how he went about it. Lawmakers have a number of ways they can enrich themselves that don’t violate the law. The most traditional route is to leave Congress and lobby your former colleagues. Those who remain in office could until recently pay their spouses out of campaign funds. And lawmakers have long used legislation to enhance the value of their own property.

Campaign contributions are a perfectly legal way to buy influence. “The distinction between a campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference. You can hardly tell one from the other,” Sen. Daniel Inouye once said. Businesses don’t pony up massive amounts of campaign cash for ideological reasons.

It’s not easy for prosecutors to prove that a member of Congress is on the take. A bribery charge requires convincing evidence of a quid pro quo — that is, the congressman agreed to do something in exchange for the money or service he received. Congress is partially shielded by the “speech or debate” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents prosecutors from prying too deeply into legislative business. The Justice Department finds itself in the sticky position of investigating members who approve the department’s budget. And even when an investigation gets underway, lawmakers can tap campaign funds to hire some of Washington’s best lawyers to defend them.

Q: How were the bribe rates set? Were there standard rates in exchange for particular benefits, such as being handed a lucrative government contract? Did his prices go up as his power and influence in Congress increased?

A: During a dinner with one of the defense contractors who was bribing him, Cunningham drew up what prosecutors have taken to calling a “bribe menu.” The congressman pulled out a sheet of his office stationery and wrote out two columns of numbers, indicating how much a certain contract would cost. One half of the paper represented the amount of money to be paid to Cunningham, which translated into the millions of dollars’ worth of contracts listed on the other side.

The figures started with $140,000 for a yacht, which translated into a $16 million contract. For each additional $50,000 in bribes, the congressman would increase the value of the contract by $1 million: a $190,000 payment would yield a $17 million contract, and so on. Cunningham went even further and incentivized bribery. Once the bribes reached $340,000, the rates dropped. The congressman would charge only $25,000 for each additional million dollar amount awarded. A $25 million contract could be had for the discounted price of $440,000.

Other bribes were the product of negotiation. For example, in 2000, Cunningham tried to sell his yacht, the Kelly C, for $550,000 to a defense contractor, who countered with an offer of $100,000, which the congressman accepted. (The sale was halted when Cunningham’s staffers learned about it, but the congressman kept the money.) Three years later, Cunningham once again demanded half a million dollars from the same contractor, who agreed on the condition if the congressman would arrange government contracts for him.

The explosive growth in Cunningham’s bribery had less to do with his rising power in Congress than his growing immorality. Although he held powerful seats on the House Intelligence Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, his committee positions were unchanged since January 2001; the bulk of his bribes occurred after that. Most of Cunningham’s bribes involved the purchase of his mansion and the paying of his mortgages in 2003 and 2004.

Q: How are Cunningham’s actions similar or different (beyond the sums of money involved) to the practices of earmarking and supporting pork projects that go on often and legally in Congress?

A: Cunningham has become the poster boy for the dangers of earmarking, and with good reason. An earmark is a line-item tucked into an appropriation bill that circumvents the normal budget approval process. Earmarks reward special interests and they take government spending out of the hands of professionals. They also bestow incredible power on members of Congress and staff, and they are ripe for corruption. According to court documents, Cunningham appropriated at least $160 million for the two defense contractors who were bribing him, much of it through earmarks.

When it comes to earmarking, Cunningham was just following the herd. The year Cunningham joined the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, there were 644 earmarks in the defense spending bill worth $4.36 billion. By the time he resigned, the bill contained 2,847 earmarks worth more than $9.4 billion.

The scale of Cunningham’s earmarks don’t even touch other egregious examples, the best known of which are the “bridges to nowhere” that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and linked remote and lightly populated regions in Alaska. Equally egregious, members use earmarks to increase the value of their properties and investments. Former G.O.P. Speaker Dennis Hastert pocketed $2 million selling Illinois land near a proposed parkway he championed with a $207 million earmark.

For all the energy Congress puts into earmarks, they amount to roughly 2 percent of overall appropriation spending. What Congress has done is strike a Faustian bargain with the White House: while Congress dithers over its 2 percent, an administration that has aggressively sought to expand executive power quietly took care of the remaining 98 percent. That’s an abdication of Congress’s key power of the purse.

In the wake of the Cunningham scandal, the House passed rules requiring members to disclose which earmarks they sponsored. Senators would be required to do the same under a bill awaiting President Bush’s signature. It remains to be seen whether that will break the earmark fever in Washington.

Q: Tell us about the history of bribery in the legislative branch. Was it always considered a crime? How have standards changed? Has the stigma associated with being caught evolved over time?

A: Bribery wasn’t a crime in Congress for many years. Senator Daniel Webster, the famed orator and future U.S. Secretary of State, solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in what would today be considered bribes. In a famous letter to the president of the Bank of the United States, Webster wrote, “I believe my retainer has not been renewed or refreshed as usual. If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued it may be well to send me the usual retainers.” The gifts of railway stock to members of Congress in the Credit Mobilier scandal weren’t illegal either.

As America grew, so did its corruption. The construction of railroads and the Civil War opened new pathways for graft. As financier Jim Fisk figured out, “You can sell anything to the government at almost any price you’ve got the guts to ask.” Samuel Colt, who popularized the revolver, paid at least $60,000 to secure approval of a bill extending the life of his patents. Stephen A. Douglas, who famously debated Abraham Lincoln before the outbreak of Civil War, enhanced the value of his property in Chicago by securing a federal land grant for a railroad from Chicago to Mobile.

In response to a series of scandals, Congress enacted a series of overlapping statutes aimed at curbing abuses, but prosecutions were few and far between. The first case of criminal corruption in Congress involved Rep. Robert Smalls, a Republican from South Carolina. In 1877, Smalls was arrested and subsequently indicted for accepting a bribe while a state senator. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but historians say Small, an escaped slave representing the first state to secede from the Union, was a victim of the racial politics of the time. Only a handful of members of Congress faced criminal charges for using their office for personal gain until the 1970s.

The floodgates opened after Watergate, with more members of Congress prosecuted in the next 10 years than in the previous 100. The ABSCAM case of 1980 sent five representatives and one senator to prison for pocketing bribes from an F.B.I. agent posing as a Middle Eastern businessman. Another corruption case launched the career of a young federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani. The future mayor of New York subjected Rep. Bertram Podell, a Democrat from New York, to such a withering cross-examination that the congressman halted the trial and changed his plea to guilty.

Q: How does Cunningham’s case relate to the case in the 1990s of Vladimiro Montesinos, the chief of Peru’s secret intelligence service, who kept detailed records of all bribes paid to politicians, judges and journalists?

A: Since bribery is illegal, it is usually kept hidden and therefore difficult to measure. In the 1990s, Montesinos kept detailed records of his transactions, which were videotaped, and he demanded written receipts and contracts from those whom he paid.

Peruvian politicians were paid between $5,000 and $20,000 a month, more than their official salary. Bribes to judges tended to be lower, costing between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. Judges also received gifts of cars and jobs for their spouses. And Montesinos also used blackmail with videotapes from brothels controlled by his secret police.

By contrast, it cost far more to keep newspapers and television stations on the payroll. One newspaper was paid $1.5 million over two years or $62,000 a month under an incentive contract that paid $3,000 to $4,000 for a front-page headline and $5,000 for a front page article. The television station with the largest viewership got $1.5 million a month. Some independent media outlets continued to publish, but Montesinos felt their reach was small and they weren’t read by the masses. Consequently, they were not worth bribing.

The disparity between the price of bribes paid to politicians and judges compared to those the news media received shows the relative importance of each. The television stations and newspapers were a greater threat to Montesinos because they were an effective check on power. They spoke directly to Peruvians and could — and eventually did — foment unrest that toppled the regime.

How does this relate to the Cunningham case? Like Peru’s politicians, Cunningham came cheap, for only a penny or two for every dollar in earmarked defense money he steered to his cronies. And it was the press who revealed Cunningham’s real estate deals and set the FBI investigation into motion.

Unlike Peru, however, we had internal checks on power that functioned as they were supposed to. Federal agents and prosecutors acted swiftly to remove Cunningham from power and an unbiased federal judge had no problem sentencing him to 100 months in prison, the longest sentence for a member of Congress on record.

Q: You depict Cunningham as a war hero of questionable intelligence who, upon gaining power in Congress, was lured into a life of million-dollar homes, yachts, and private jets by defense contractors and other deep-pocketed D.C. insiders. Is this a common path in democratic politics? Is bribery preventable?

A: Congress is one of the few places, if not the only place, where someone as spectacularly unqualified as Cunningham can within a few years hold sway over billion-dollar defense programs and be privy to the nation’s secrets. While his corruption may have been extreme, we still have much to learn from what happened to him. Cunningham shows how a weak person can be easily used by the system. It’s a case of what happens when a person in authority loses all judgment and the ability to say no.

Politicians in Washington are drowning in a sea of money. So much of it gets thrown around that it loses perspective and meaning. Consider that health care companies spent $226 million in the first half of this year alone to field teams of lobbyists in Washington. When Cunningham looked around, he saw former staffers-turned-lobbyists who were making much more than he did. It becomes easy to rationalize behavior in that environment. The cost of a mansion was just spare change in the defense spending bill.

The temptation isn’t going away. A bribe is a cheap, fast way to cut through so much red tape. As government continues to grow and issue more and more regulations, the advantage of having a “friend” in Washington will grow as well. It’s probably not possible to prevent every instance of bribery, but it would go along way if Congress got serious about the problem.

Q: You note that, during the years when he was collecting bribes, Cunningham steadfastly justified his actions and believed that he was fighting against government corruption. Is such justification common in instances of bribery? Is it a similar crime to theft? Why or why not?

A: The Cunningham case was an example of misappropriation. Cunningham was appropriating money for make-work projects, such as digitizing every document in the Panama Canal Zone, even the plans for the dog kennels. Part of the money he appropriated was returned to him in the form of bribes.

It’s been very difficult for Cunningham to come to terms with his own conduct. Early on, he did indicate that he would have supported the projects and programs of the guys who bribed him anyway, so what difference did it make if he accepted “gifts” from them? He also believed that the government contracting officials he was bullying and threatening were just meddling bureaucrats who could be brushed aside. From prison, he has written letters blaming others for his conduct.

Still, when confronted with the overwhelming evidence amassed by prosecutors, Cunningham did what most members of Congress do when accused of corruption: he admitted wrongdoing, resigned his office and went to prison. Few go to trial. One notable exception is Jim Traficant, the Ohio Democrat who represented himself at trial and continues to maintain his innocence from prison where he is serving an eight-year sentence.

Q: In the course of your research, what was the most surprising detail you learned about Cunningham? Do you consider him a sympathetic figure?

A: As a new father myself, I was shocked that Cunningham essentially abandoned his adopted daughter at the same time he was being hailed as a Navy hero. Cunningham and his first wife had adopted a baby girl, but the marriage fell apart, and his ex-wife had to return the 18-month-old girl to the San Diego County adoption authorities. Cunningham had taken pains to carefully write that episode out of the chronicles of his Vietnam War exploits, and it had never been reported before.

Cunningham’s behavior in Congress was also surprising. I just couldn’t have imagined that members of Congress would get into a brawl, as Democrat Jim Moran and Cunningham did in 1995 after the Republican takeover of Congress. Cunningham was knocked out of the fight when he busted his hand on Moran’s fist, but his Republican colleagues rushed to his defense like baseball players in a bench-clearing brawl.

Many readers tell me they come away feeling somewhat sorry for Cunningham, and I think that’s a reflection of my own sentiments about him. He was a deeply troubled individual who hid his flaws beneath the mantle of war hero that he wore throughout his life. His insecurity led him to exaggerate his considerable achievements and bully anyone who challenged him. When you strip that away, what remains at the end is a fragile, lost and deeply confused human being.

Q: You mention that, while the F.B.I. was investigating Cunningham’s illegal activities, the House ethics committee never touched the case, since it had been shut down due to a partisan stalemate. In your view, is a political body able to effectively police its members for bribery?

A: Some political bodies may be able to police themselves. The U.S. Congress is not one of them. The Committee of Standards on Official Conduct has been a partisan tool that Newt Gingrich used to attack Democratic Speaker Jim Wright. The Democrats were only giving as they got when they used the committee to attack House Majority Tom DeLay.

The ethics committee is just one of many problems plaguing Congress. Some of the others I’ve touched on — a loss of decorum, an absence of oversight, an explosion in earmarks — suggest that something is dangerously wrong. The Democratic takeover has gone some way to address these problems, but I fear that once the institution loses something, it’s very hard to bring it back.

At a bare minimum, Congress needs to clean house and create an ethics body that has real power to investigate and is immune from the ever-changing winds of politics. But Congress won’t do that until voters demand it. Nonpartisan groups like Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, Common Cause, and others have called on Congress to create an independent body to police members. It’s an idea whose time has come.