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Randy “Duke” Cunningham, whose feats as a Navy flying ace during the Vietnam War catapulted him to a U.S House career that ended in disgrace when he was convicted of accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, is completing one of the longest prison sentence ever given to a member of Congress.
Cunningham, 71, is due to be released Tuesday. He told a federal judge last year that he planned to live near his mother and brother in a remote part of Arkansas, writing books in a small cabin. But in a brief interview with The Associated Press in April, he said he might settle with military friends in Florida, where he would write his memoirs.
“I’m like a tenderfoot in the forest,” he said. “I’m just unsure where to find a branch to sit on.”
Cunningham, an eight-term Republican congressman from San Diego, was sentenced to eight years, four months in prison in March 2006 after pleading guilty to accepting bribes from companies in exchange for steering government contracts their way. The bribes included a luxury house, yacht, Rolls-Royce, travel, lavish meals, $40,000 Persian rugs and antique furniture.
Cunningham, who has been in home confinement at an undisclosed location since February, had his sentence cut 392 days for good behavior, said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The bribes — the largest known to be accepted by a member of Congress — were one of several scandals afflicting Republicans at the time, allowing Democrats to portray a culture of corruption in midterm elections that made San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi the first female Speaker of the House. Cunningham’s downfall also fed controversy over congressional earmarks that allow lawmakers to direct money to pet projects.
When he tearfully announced his resignation outside San Diego’s federal courthouse, Cunningham said he disgraced his office. At his sentencing, he told U.S. District Judge Larry Burns that he took “a very wrong turn” and that he would repent for the rest of his life.
The contrition didn’t last. Cunningham told news organizations and others that he regretted his guilty plea and complained that the Internal Revenue Service was draining his savings.
“You can only push a man so far, your honor,” Cunningham wrote the judge in 2010. He acknowledged mistakes but added in the same sentence that he was “one of the most highly decorated veterans in this nation” who gave a life of service.
His sentence required he pay $1.8 million for back taxes and forfeit an additional $1.85 million for bribes he received, plus proceeds from the sale of a home in the highly exclusive San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. He was ordered to pay $1,500 a month in prison and $1,000 monthly after his release.
Cunningham wrote the judge last year that he would live on $1,700 a month after his release, saying the IRS “has me poor for the rest of my life.” He portrayed the loss of his home and other property as an example of how veterans are mistreated.
“This dark period in my life is about to get a little lighter but do not think it will ever get sunny,” he wrote.
In his letter, Cunningham pleaded for a gun permit, saying he longed to hunt in Arkansas. Burns denied the request as being beyond the scope of his authority.
“I flew aircraft that could disintegrate your building with a half second burst and now can’t carry a 22 cal. Pls help me your honor,” Cunningham wrote.
Cunningham, a former fighter pilot who invoked his war heroics throughout his career, took an interest in military affairs while in Congress. He also supported socially conservative positions but may have drawn most attention for his outbursts. During a floor debate in 1995, he attacked his adversaries as “the same ones that would put homos in the military.”
Two people who bribed Cunningham also were convicted. Former contractor Brent Wilkes was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to 12 years for bribery and other charges for lavishing Cunningham with more than $700,000 in cash and other gifts in exchange for nearly $90 million in defense work. He is free while appealing the verdict.
Mitchell Wade was released from prison in 2011 after a 2½-year sentence. He pleaded guilty to giving the congressman more than $1 million in gifts — including a yacht that Cunningham named “Duke-Stir” — in exchange for about $150 million in contracts.
Cunningham served nearly all his sentence at a minimum-security federal work camp in Tucson, Ariz., where inmates earn 12 to 40 cents an hour doing landscaping, maintenance work and food preparation. He moved to a New Orleans halfway house in December and, two months later, to a home where he lived under house arrest. The Bureau of Prisons declined to say where, citing privacy and safety concerns.
It was the longest prison sentence for a member of Congress for taking bribes until Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson got 13 years in 2009.
Cunningham, who has battled prostate cancer, said in April that he “did some things that I’m sorry for” but declined to address specific questions. He said he’s done drawing attention to himself.
“What I’m trying to do is make a new start,” he said. “It’s like being reborn almost.”
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