California Congressman Pleads Guilty to Bribery

U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) pleads guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for helping them win Pentagon contracts. Cunningham immediately resigned from his seat representing the San Diego area and now faces up to 10 years in prison.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

A member of Congress pleaded guilty today to accepting bribes from defense contractors in exchange for helping them win business from the Pentagon. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from San Diego, immediately resigned his seat. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, he now faces up to 10 years in prison.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Duke Cunningham's troubles began last June, when The Union-Tribune newspaper revealed the congressman had sold his house in San Diego to a defense contractor for what appeared to be $700,000 more than its fair market value. Federal investigators soon discovered that sweetheart purchase was just one of the ways defense contractors rewarded the congressman. US attorney Carol Lam says Cunningham also accepted a Rolls-Royce, use of a yacht, a graduation party for his daughter and cash bribes, all totaling at least $2.4 million.

Ms. CAROL LAM (US Attorney): Regrettably for the citizens in the 50th Congressional District, and for the nation that has a right to the honest services of its representatives, it is abundantly clear that Congressman Cunningham let greed take priority over his duty to serve the best interests of his constituents and his country.

HORSLEY: In exchange for the gifts, Lam says Cunningham used his position on the Appropriations and Intelligence committees to help at least two defense firms win contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

Ms. LAM: Mr. Cunningham used his public office to pressure and influence Department of Defense personnel to award and execute government contracts in a manner that would benefit the defense contractors.

HORSLEY: Today's guilty pleas mark a staggering fall for the eight-term congressman, who first achieved fame as an instructor at the Navy's fabled Top Gun fighter pilot school. In fact, prosecutors say Cunningham used a company called Top Gun Enterprises as a vehicle for sophisticated tax evasion.

After being fingerprinted and photographed this morning, Cunningham emerged from a federal courthouse to announce his resignation from Congress. He tearfully admitted that he'd broken the law, disgraced his office and lost the trust of his friends and family.

Representative RANDY "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM (Republican, California): In my life, I have had great joy and great sorrow, and now I know great shame. I learned in Vietnam that the true measure of a man is how he responds to adversity. I can't undo what I've done, but I can atone.

HORSLEY: Prosecutors say Mitchell Wade, who bought Cunningham's house, is among several defense contractors still under investigation. Sentencing guidelines suggest Cunningham himself could receive the full 10-year prison term. He remains free until his sentencing in February. Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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