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Tuesday, November 29, 2005 | A clear and simple picture emerges from the court documents released Monday when U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham admitted to bribery and tax evasion charges: The congressman sold his seat in Congress for a comfy spot in the lap of luxury.

In exchange for Persian rugs, antique commodes, a Rolls Royce, a yacht, a mansion in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe, jewelry and cash, Cunningham pressured the Department of Defense and influenced the U.S. Congress to give what prosecutors say were tens of millions of dollars in defense contracts to his benefactors.

Many of the bribes paid to the decorated Vietnam fighter pilot came at a time when the nation was engaged, as it still is now, in brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news also comes amid growing questions surrounding the nation’s handling of the war in Iraq, as well as well as intensifying legal problems for the White House and Congressional Republicans.

All told, Cunningham admitted to accepting at least $2.4 million in cash and gifts dating back to 2000 in exchange for official action.

“I am not aware of another case of bribery by a member of Congress involving anywhere near this amount of money. It is truly staggering,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The case likely reinforces San Diego’s position as the nation’s new darling of public corruption. Indeed, the district attorney’s corruption trial of six former city of San Diego pension officials kicked off Monday morning only a block away from the federal courthouse. Both the pension and Cunningham court hearings began at 9 a.m.

And former City Councilman Ralph Inzunza was sentenced to 21 months in prison less than three weeks ago in the same building where Cunningham softly answered a “yes, your honor” every time Judge Larry Alan Burns asked him if he admitted to committing bribery, fraud and tax evasion Monday.

The city still awaits the results of a nearly two-year parallel probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission and two wings of the Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“We have a history of fast and loose financial morals,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Still, he said, the sums reaped and the schemes involved on a local level pale in comparison to those of Chicago or New York’s history.

Stuffed in the Cunningham court documents is the tale of a congressman who used methods sophisticated and unsophisticated alike to boost his personal bank accounts, pay off a $1 million mortgage for a new estate and obtain and sell houses, cars and boats through different schemes.

At the same time, according to prosecutors, he worked to secure tens of millions of dollars in contracts for two defense contractors from his senior position on the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending.

“This was a crime of unprecedented magnitude and extraordinary audacity,” said U.S. Attorney Carol Lam.

On Monday, Cunningham stepped down from office and said he would spend the remainder of his time on earth atoning for his mistakes.

“The truth is I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions but most importantly my friends and my family,” he said during a teary and brief speech.

A report by Copley News Service first detailed a deal in which the congressman sold his Del Mar home to a defense contractor for $1.6 million. Mitchell Wade, the contractor, eventually sold the house months later for a $700,000 loss. His company, MZM Inc., had received more than $100 million in defense contracts since 2002.

But documents unveiled Monday show that Cunningham’s dealings went much deeper than just the home purchase.

According to sections of the plea agreement:

– Cunningham financed the purchase of an Arlington, Va., condominium and his Rancho Santa Fe estate through nefarious transfers. An unnamed “coconspirator No. 3” wired $200,000 to a home mortgage company in 2001 to purchase the condominium in suburban Washington, D.C.

In 2003, the congressman used the proceeds from the inflated price of his Del Mar home bought by “coconspirator No. 2” to purchase a $2.55 million home in Rancho Santa Fe.

“Coconspirator No. 1,” also a defense contractor, then funneled $525,000 through a company owned by “coconspirator No. 3” on May 13, 2004, in order to pay off the mortgage on Cunningham’s Rancho Santa Fe home.

Months later on Aug. 25, 2004, the second unnamed conspirator picked up another $500,000 of Cunningham’s mortgage with two checks written to Cunningham and Top Gun Enterprises, Inc.

(The congressman is a former fighter pilot and Top Gun instructor whose Web site claims that “many of his real-life experiences as a Navy aviator and fighter pilot instructor were depicted in the popular movie ‘Top Gun.’”)

The money from the second conspirator was then funneled to the third conspirator, who paid $28,237.20 to Washington Mutual Bank for monthly mortgage payments from November 2004 until June 2005.

“Coconspirator No. 2” appears to be Wade, although no one is named because the investigation is ongoing.

Court papers refer to the defense contractor as owner of 1523 New Hampshire Ave., LLC. Papers on file with the Nevada secretary of state list Wade as the owner of the company, and court papers also identify the second conspirator as the buyer of Cunningham’s Del Mar house.

(Cunningham’s second conviction, for tax evasion, comes from not reporting the illicit mortgage payments as income to the Internal Revenue Service.)

– The two defense contractors regularly bought the congressman various instruments of luxury, such as a $140,000 yacht named the “Duke-Stir,” a payment and repairs toward a Rolls Royce, Persian-style rugs, antique furniture, travel expenses, yacht club fees, a charter jet and a graduation party for his daughter.

On Feb. 5, 2002, the unnamed “Coconspirator No. 2” paid $7,200 to an antique store for “an antique Louis Phillipe period commode” and a “Restoration period commode,” both from the mid-1800s. Louis Philipe was a French king of that era.

In April and May 2002, “coconspirator No. 2” paid $13,500 to Cunningham for the purchase of a Rolls Royce and $17,889.96 to an automotive repair shop for work done on the automobile. In May 2005, the second conspirator bought Cunningham an array of Persian-style rugs, which were delivered to the congressman.

– Cunningham regularly received straight cash and check payments from May 2000 until June 2004 that he deposited into three different personal bank accounts in San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

The cash and check payments alone totaled nearly $350,000. Nearly $180,000 of that came from the second conspirator and another $100,000 from the first conspirator.

It was, in short, a life fit for a king. Or, better yet, a Duke.

– Staff writer Scott Lewis contributed to this report.

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