The Penalty Is Severe for Cunningham

*A judge weighs the former congressman's 'avarice' against his war record, sentencing him to more than 8 years for bribery and tax evasion.

By By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO â€" A federal judge sentenced disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham on Friday to eight years and four months in prison for taking bribes and evading taxes. It is considered the harshest penalty ever meted out to a former member of Congress in a corruption case.

"What you did was aggravated in scope, duration and nature," U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns told a haggard-looking Cunningham. "The word 'avarice' is an antiquated word. But I think it applies here."

Cunningham had admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes. On Friday, with his voice breaking, the former decorated naval pilot asked the federal judge for mercy and mentioned his record as a war hero.

Burns said he would have sentenced the 64-year-old Republican to 10 years in prison, as requested by prosecutors, but concluded that a measure of leniency was appropriate because of Cunningham's service in Vietnam.

After hearing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys, Burns said he agreed with the prosecution that a long sentence would send a warning to politicians not to misuse their offices for private gain.

But he then said, "Yes, send a message to politicians, but another message should be sent for service to country."

Under a plea agreement reached in November, prosecutors agreed not to seek more than a 10-year sentence. They could have pressed for 20 years.

Cunningham's attorneys had recommended a six-year sentence, citing Cunningham's war record, age, declining health and lack of a previous criminal record.

Federal prisoners are generally eligible for parole after serving 85% of their sentences, or seven years and one month in Cunningham's case.

Burns also ordered Cunningham to pay $1.8 million in restitution and rejected his request to remain free long enough to say goodbye to his 91-year-old mother and his estranged wife.

The judge ordered Cunningham into custody and recommended that he be sent to the minimum-security prison in Taft, about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield. The federal Bureau of Prisons will decide where Cunningham will serve his time.

In a bid for a lesser sentence, Cunningham told the judge about his war record. He shot down five enemy planes â€" three on one day â€" and received the Navy Cross, the Navy's second-highest medal for bravery.

"I didn't jump into a pack of MIGs for ego," he said in a trembling voice, looking at prosecutors. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

Prosecutors had urged Burns to ignore Cunningham's war record, saying his heroism was "three decades ago."

But Burns noted that, while he himself had a high draft number and avoided military service during "an unpopular war," Cunningham had volunteered and served with distinction in combat and later as a flight instructor at the Top Gun school in San Diego.

Cunningham was accompanied into court by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a friend and a fellow Vietnam veteran.

Burns said that of the 100 letters submitted on behalf of Cunningham, he was most impressed by one from a former Navy aviator who remembered Cunningham visiting him while he recuperated from injuries and one from an African American man who recalled Cunningham's support at a time when the Navy's commitment to racial diversity was questionable.

Prosecutors called the sentence the longest ever handed down in a congressional corruption case, and historians said the bribes were the largest ever.

"No one can serve the public and his own greed at the same time," U.S. Atty. Carol Lam said in a statement. "Mr. Cunningham failed his office, his colleagues and his nation."

The plea agreement, which forced Cunningham to resign, provided a detailed list of payoffs, including cash, sweetheart real estate deals, antiques, trips, the use of a yacht, a deal on a Rolls-Royce and jewelry for his wife. The bribes from four unnamed co-conspirators came in exchange for Cunningham's using his influence to arrange lucrative defense contracts for high-tech equipment for intelligence gathering and analysis.

Prosecutors portrayed Cunningham as the mastermind of the bribery scheme, noting that he kept a "bribe menu" on congressional stationery indicating how much he demanded in exchange for contracts.

They charged that he "bullied and hectored" Pentagon bureaucrats to approve deals for contractors Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes, including threatening to get one bureaucrat fired and ignoring a warning from one official that $700,000 in bills from Wilkes' firm seemed fraudulent.

Cunningham's fall from prominence was swift. He represented a Republican district in the affluent suburbs of northern San Diego County, had never been in a close reelection race and was a key GOP fundraiser.

But in June, Copley News Service's Washington bureau reported that Wade had paid what appeared to be an inflated price for Cunningham's home in Del Mar Heights. The sale allowed Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, to buy a mansion in swanky Rancho Santa Fe.

Three months before the story broke, Cunningham's chief of staff in Washington had abruptly but quietly resigned.

The aide had recognized the sale price of the house as a bribe and a year earlier had advised Cunningham to resign or at least not run for reelection, a warning that Cunningham angrily ignored, according to federal prosecutors. He was reelected in November 2004 to an eighth term.

Once the article appeared, federal prosecutors launched an investigation.

Wade, the contractor who bought the Del Mar Heights house, pleaded guilty last month to bribery and is awaiting sentencing in Washington federal court.

His amount of the bribes â€" including a price that was $700,000 above market value for the Del Mar Heights house â€" was put at more than $1 million.

Cunningham was elected in 1990 on the strength of his status as a war hero and the ethical problems of the Democratic incumbent, who had been scolded by colleagues for sexually harassing staff members.

He took office just as the United States launched the Persian Gulf War to push Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. As a decorated fighter pilot from the Vietnam War, Cunningham was sought after by the media, giving him a celebrity that few freshmen congressmen enjoy.

Known for uncompromising rhetoric and conservative views, Cunningham rose in influence as Republicans gained control of Congress and the White House. But he never the lost the blustery manner of the cocky fighter pilot.

"In the Navy, he was given medals for ignoring danger signs and performing perilous and death-defying acts," Beverly Hills psychiatrist Dr. Saul Faerstein concluded after a five-hour interview with Cunningham on behalf of the defense. "In Congress, he was expected to behave very differently, but the psyche cannot make such a U-turn easily."

Cunningham's wife, a school administrator, stood beside him in the summer when he denied the allegations. The couple are now estranged. Prosecutors decline to say whether she may face criminal charges.

The Rancho Santa Fe home has been sold for $2.6 million and Cunningham's share of the profits seized by the government. An auction is scheduled for March 23 for the antiques, rugs and other items, with the money to be confiscated by the Internal Revenue Service.

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