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Saturday, March 04, 2006 | It was like a funeral.
There were tears, coughing geriatrics, plenty of black, pinstriped suits, dark sunglasses (despite the drizzle falling outside) and even visiting dignitaries.
The only thing that was not quite clear at Friday’s sentencing of disgraced former San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, was exactly who or what was being laid to rest.
For Cunningham’s friends and family, it was a goodbye to the man they once knew, perhaps forever. For Cunningham himself, it was the burial of his public life as he faced down the fact that he will not enjoy freedom – let alone his once-luxurious lifestyle – for many years. But for most people in the room, including U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns, the event represented the death of a more innocent time, a time when Top Gun war heroes flew above the corrupted wastelands of everyday American politics.
“A lot of good kids worked for you when you were in office. You have made it more difficult for them because you’ve added to the cynicism directed at politicians,” Burns said.
As is usually the case when a judge knows the world’s media is fixated on his every word, Burns drew out his closing speech like a skier negotiating a slalom course, shifting from abhorrence of Cunningham’s crimes to praise of his military service, before reaching his final verdict.
In the end, the judge decided the Duke should go down for 100 months. That’s 20 months less than the prosecution had asked for and 28 months more than the defense said would be a fair punishment.
The hearing was long, and at times very technical, but it was never boring.
Long before the courtroom was opened up to the public and the media, a line had stretched out along the San Diego Court of Justice’s fourth floor corridor. Journalists had camped out for this one, and many sat, tapping into laptops as they waited for the show to begin. Outside the courthouse, under a fine mist of rain, every camera in California was set up waiting for the star to arrive.
When Cunningham did finally arrive in court, a hush fell upon the crowd, broken only by the slaps he received on the back from the many supporters who had come to see him off. Father Joe Carroll was one of those well-wishers, who clasped Cunningham to his breast while the former congressman’s red face took on an almost rapturous shine.
But for all the well-wishers, there were also the hawkish glances of dozens of journalists. The country’s news vultures had shown up to pick this carcass completely clean, and Cunningham’s security detail watched the crowd fretfully, aware of the animosity their boss attracts these days.
The opening arguments in the sentencing were a complicated tangle of legalese and jargon that left anyone without a legal training far behind. After much discussion of the statutory sentencing rules in this case, Burns passed the floor over to either side to present their arguments regarding the sentencing.
Cunningham’s defense attorney, K. Lee Blalack, said if his client was sent to jail for the maximum sentence of 10 years, he might not get out alive. Citing the former congressman’s history of physical and mental illness, Blalack said he was not in court to argue that Cunningham’s crimes were anything less than “egregious.” However, he said that six years was more than enough of a punishment to send a message to his client and to those watching in Congress and elsewhere.
“The single question is what sentence is sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” Blalack said. “We submit that a six year prison term can not simply be called a slap on the wrist.”
Unsurprisingly, Blalack played his ace cards early. Ace: Cunningham served his country as a war hero, has worked on many good causes and has the unwavering support of a number of community do-gooders. Ace: Cunningham could well die in prison. Ace: Cunningham bawled in front of the world’s cameras and the nation’s children when he admitted his guilt. Ace: Cunningham, at 64, is not exactly a strong candidate for recidivism.
By contrast, the federal prosecutors – whose sharp suits and eloquence was in stark contrast to Blalack’s rather fumbled pleadings – knew they already had a strong hand to play.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Forge simply let the facts do the talking. Cunningham was a public official who blatantly disregarded all semblance of responsibility, he argued. Cunningham was driven by greed to push his already lavish lifestyle into an even more lavish dimension. In doing so, he transferred millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to fund projects that the U.S. government neither requested nor needed.
As far as Cunningham’s military service was concerned, Forge said the congressman had already reaped the rewards of his hero’s past. Referring to a psychologist’s report that Cunningham had been facing depression and anxiety issues since Spring 2005, Forge pointed out that Cunningham’s conscience had only started to catch up with him recently – not during the five years he spent robbing the American people.
“This report is an insult to veterans who do not try to trade in their medals for get out of jail free cards,” Forge proclaimed.
It was no surprise that Cunningham himself also decided to take the stage.
Looking red and old and speaking in a voice squeeked by emotion, Cunningham addressed the judge in a manner that was equal parts pitiful and pleading.
“I recently saw a bumper sticker that said ‘You’re heading in the wrong direction,’ well, after years of service, I made the wrong turn and went the wrong way, I made a very wrong turn,” Cunningham said.
But even in his choking confession that he had “torn his life apart,” Cunningham’s face turned, proud, to the prosecutors, as if he were telling them something they needed to know. Even at his most disgraced, the Duke maintained an air of arrogance.
“If you let me go today, which I know you can’t, I’ll be the best citizen this country has today,” Cunningham said.
He commanded attention from the judge and thus also demanded his pity.
And, to some extent, he got it.
Judge Burns talked with some passion of looking up to war veterans as a child and as a baby-boomer who narrowly missed the draft himself. He talked of his admiration for the old Duke, who, after one tour of duty in Vietnam turned around and went straight back to fight despite the criticism of his countrymen at home. And he talked of disbelief that the man he had read about, who he had so admired, had become so bent by greed.
“I’m surprised at you,” Burns said. “The word avarice is an antiquated word, it’s not used much these days, it means egregious greed. But, as antiquated as it is, I think it applies here.”
Drawing parallels between Cunningham’s life and his own – both have had to get by on a government salary, he said – the judge even pointed out that Cunningham should have taken on a career as a lobbyist rather than a crook. He would probably have made twice as much as he did in bribes in a year as a lobbyist, Burns said.
But in making his final decision, Burns compared Cunningham’s situation to that of the hundreds of poor and destitute people who stand in front of him in court over the course of a year.
“You weren’t wet, you weren’t cold, you weren’t hungry, and yet you did these things. That’s a very aggravating aspect of this case,” Burns said.
Finally, the judge decided on the 100-month sentence, the announcement of which elicited almost no response from Cunningham. In addition, Burns ordered Cunningham to repay almost $2 million in back taxes, which he will pay at a rate of $1,500 a month. At that rate, he’ll have to live until he’s 164 years old to pay off the full bill.
Outside the courthouse, in the rain, Forge and his associates answered questions for a cluster of news reporters. They were happy with the decision, they said, which was the heaviest jail sentence ever given to a corrupt Congressman. Cunningham is continuing to cooperate with them, as per his plea bargain, they added, but they could not comment on any further investigations.
Meanwhile, behind the courthouse, Cunningham was being ushered into a police vehicle for a short trip to the nearby Metropolitan Correctional Center.
His friends, family and supporters, looking tired and unhappy, headed off into the city. For them, Cunningham has been handed what could well be a life sentence. Certainly, the Duke is dead as far as many San Diegans are concerned, and his departure from the region’s political scene will doubtless be regarded by many as a good riddance.
Please contact Will Carless directly at