Cunningham goes from the House to the Big House

By SETH HETTENA

Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who collected $2.4 million in homes, yachts, antique furnishings and other bribes on a scale unparalleled in the history of Congress, was sentenced Friday to eight years and four months in prison, the longest term meted out to a congressman in decades.

Cunningham, who resigned from Congress in disgrace last year, was spared the 10-year maximum by U.S. District Judge Larry Burns but was immediately taken into custody.

Cunningham also was ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for back taxes. He must forfeit an additional $1.85 million for cash bribes he received, plus hundreds of thousands from the sale of a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

Cunningham accepted money and gifts including a Rolls-Royce and $40,000 Persian rugs from defense contractors and others in exchange for steering government contracts their way and other favors.

Federal prosecutors sought the maximum and his attorneys asked for mercy, but Cunningham, choking up as he addressed the judge, focused on accepting blame. "Your honor I have ripped my life to shreds due to my actions, my actions that I did to myself," he said.

"I made a very wrong turn. I rationalized decisions I knew were wrong. I did that, sir," Cunningham said.

Much thinner than when he pleaded guilty in November _ he said he has gone from 265 pounds to 175 pounds since June _ Cunningham had asked to see his 91-year-old mother one last time before going to prison, but was denied.

The judge, while crediting Cunningham for his military service and for taking responsibility, questioned why he felt compelled to betray his constituents and his colleagues for luxuries.

"You weren’t wet. You weren’t cold. You weren’t hungry and yet you did these things," Burns said. "I think what you’ve done is you’ve undermined the opportunity that honest politicians have to do a good job."

The scale of his wrongdoing surpasses anything in the history of Congress, according to official Senate and House historians. "In the sheer dollar amount, it’s unprecedented," Deputy House Historian Fred W. Beuttler said Friday.

The longest term meted out to congressmen in the past four decades had been eight years, handed to former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, in 2002 for taking payoffs, and to former Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y., in 1988 for extorting nearly $2 million from a defense contractor.

Prosecutor Phil Halpern told the judge that while Cunningham was living the good life "he was squandering precious tax dollars for, among other things, systems the military didn’t ask for, didn’t need and frequently didn’t use."

Cunningham’s attorney Lee Blalack asked for six years for the former Navy "Top Gun" flight instructor and Vietnam War flying ace.

Cunningham, 64 and a congressman for 15 years, rubbed away tears while Blalack addressed the court. He appeared to be crying quietly when Blalack referred to his wartime service.

Blalack said that given Cunningham’s age and history of prostate cancer, "there is a significant likelihood" he would not survive a 10-year sentence, and that he already has suffered greatly.

"This man has been humiliated beyond belief by his own hand. He is estranged from those he loves most and cares most about," Blalack said. "All his worldly possessions are gone. He will carry a crushing tax debt until the day he dies. He will go to jail until he’s 70 years old."

Prosecutor Jason A. Forge said Cunningham should not get a break for committing crimes late in life, and doubted his apparent remorse, pointing out that after the allegations emerged he spent months falsely denying them.

"The fact of the matter is Mr. Cunningham went down kicking and screaming," Forge said.

The sentence reverberated in Washington, D.C.

"It is my hope that Congressman Cunningham will spend his incarceration thinking long and hard about how he broke the trust of the voters that elected him and those on Capitol Hill who served with him," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a statement.

Cunningham pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to tax evasion and a conspiracy involving four others. It is among a series of GOP scandals: Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty pleas in a corruption investigation; a campaign-finance indictment that forced Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas to step down as majority leader; a stock sale by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that is under investigation; and the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff in the CIA leak case.

The case against Cunningham began when authorities started investigating his sale of his Del Mar house to defense contractor Mitchell Wade for $1,675,000, a price inflated by $700,000.

Wade admitted giving Cunningham more than $1 million in gifts, including a yacht, cash, cars, antiques and meals. He pleaded guilty last month to conspiring with Cunningham, among four corruption charges that carry a maximum prison term of 20 years.

Wade’s company, MZM Inc., which does classified intelligence work for the military, donated to Cunningham’s campaigns and received more than $150 million in Defense Department contracts beginning in 2002.

Three other co-conspirators were included in Cunningham’s plea agreement but no charges have been announced.

The judge recommended that Cunningham serve his sentence at a federal prison in Taft, Calif. Time off for good behavior could cut his sentence to about seven years.

A special election to fill Cunningham’s seat is set for April 11. The district is heavily Republican but Democrats hope to capture it; their candidate Francine Busby is to deliver the party’s weekly radio address on Saturday.

© 2006 The Associated Press

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