Monday, November 28, 2005 | U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who became an outspoken conservative, admitted this morning in a guilty plea that he accepted at least $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors for the promise of political favors.
In exchange for cash and gifts that included personal checks, a yacht, payments toward a Rolls Royce, antique rugs, two 19th-century commodes, trips and a graduation party for his daughter, Cunningham pressured and influenced Department of Defense officials to award contracts in the tens of millions of dollars to his unnamed co-conspirators, said U.S. Attorney Carol Lam.
“This was a crime of unprecedented magnitude and extraordinary audacity,” Lam said.
The congressman announced his resignation shortly after entering the guilty plea. He will be sentenced on Feb. 27 and faces as much as 10 years in prison. As part of the plea agreement, he has agreed to the forfeiture of his Rancho Santa Fe home, $1.8 million in U.S. currency and furniture and rugs.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States, a crime that includes conspiracies to commit bribery and honest services fraud, and one count of tax evasion.
Reporters were told of the surprise court hearing only hours before it was to start at 9 a.m. During the morning court proceeding, Cunningham was asked by Judge Larry Alan Burns if he admitted to accepting bribes in exchange for official action and if he hid the proceeds from the government to avoid paying taxes.
“Yes, your honor,” Cunningham replied softly when asked if he committed each specific crime alleged against him.
Later, outside the courthouse, the congressman said he had broken the law and disgraced his office.
“In my life I have had great joy and great sorrow, and now I know great shame,” he said in a tearful, but brief speech. Cunningham didn’t answer questions from reporters.
Cunningham had been under investigation for several months after Copley News Service revealed that he had sold his former Del Mar home for what appeared to be a wildly inflated price. The buyer of the property was a defense contractor whose business with the military was overseen by a congressional committee on which Cunningham was a member.
Court papers filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office cite three unnamed co-conspirators. Lam said the investigation is ongoing and refused to identify the co-conspirators.
The congressman also admitted to making more than $1.2 million in 2004, but only reporting $121,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. He received two covert payments of $500,000 each that went to the first and second mortgages on his Rancho Santa Fe home. Such payments are considered income under IRS code and should have been reported.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Forge said the congressman and his co-conspirators transferred the money through a number of accounts on both coasts to hide the payments. He said one account used belonged to Cunningham and was named Top Gun Enterprises.
Cunningham was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and later a Top Gun instructor. He represented the 50th congressional district, which stretches from north Pacific Beach to Carlsbad and includes San Marcos, Escondido and the San Diego neighborhoods of Rancho Bernardo, La Jolla and Mira Mesa.
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