San Diego Reacts to Cunningham's Guilty Plea

Kenny Goldberg of member station KPBS in San Diego reports on local reaction to the news that Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, longtime Republican representative of San Diego's affluent North County, resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In California, a very popular congressman, Randy Cunningham--everyone calls him Duke--resigned yesterday. That came after the eight-term Republican pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion. He used his office to help a defense contractor get federal jobs. Congressman Cunningham had sat on the House Appropriations Committee which is the money pit. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Kenny Goldberg reports on the reaction in the congressman's district.

KENNY GOLDBERG reporting:

In June, news reports surfaced that Duke Cunningham had sold his San Diego-area home to a defense contractor in 2003 for an inflated price. The contractor later received millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts. A federal grand jury and the FBI launched investigations. For months, Cunningham maintained he did nothing wrong. Yesterday, in front of the San Diego federal courthouse, Cunningham admitted he had lied.

Representative RANDY "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM (Republican, California): Because I was not strong enough to face the truth, I misled my family, friends, staff, colleagues, the public and even myself. For all of this, I am deeply sorry. The truth is I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office.

GOLDBERG: In a lengthy plea agreement, Cunningham admitted to taking $2 1/2 million in bribes. He says the payments came from several unidentified conspirators in the form of cash, antiques and vacations. Cunningham is a former Navy Top Gun pilot. He broke down when he talked about the impact of his misdeeds.

Rep. CUNNINGHAM: In my life, I have had great joy and great sorrow, and now I know great shame.

GOLDBERG: Cunningham's district covers a wide section of San Diego County, including a number of well-to-do coastal communities. Voters in the heavily Republican area have sent Duke to Congress for eight consecutive terms. News of Cunningham's guilty pleas and resignation hit local residents hard.

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GOLDBERG: Lois Murphy is a long-time Cunningham supporter from the beachside city of Carlsbad.

Ms. LOIS MURPHY (Carlsbad Resident): It's shocking, really shocking. We always looked up to him, and I can't believe he would plead guilty. But if he did, he did.

GOLDBERG: Fellow Carlsbad resident Dale Roberts said he's glad Cunningham has accepted responsibility for his actions. At the same time, Roberts says perhaps the political environment in Washington is partly to blame.

Mr. DALE ROBERTS (Carlsbad Resident): Maybe there's some great temptation out there when you're a politician in his position. And, I mean, you go back to Washington and there's maybe some poison back there. I think it's tough even for people with a great track record like him. Sometimes there is temptations out there that make you do things you wouldn't maybe ordinarily do.

GOLDBERG: Others in the district aren't as charitable. Brad Bartlett lives in the inland community of Escondido.

Mr. BRAD BARTLETT (Escondido Resident): I think that one of the most important things in public office is integrity and honesty, if not in life in general. And if he's not going to be an honest person and he has not been honest in the past, it definitely lowers my opinion of him as a person and as a representative of our government.

GOLDBERG: In any case, the once-popular congressman is now an admitted felon. The region's North County Times newspaper has backed Cunningham since his early days in Congress. Times editor Kent Davy says it's an incredible turn of events.

Mr. KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Here is a man who was at the top of the world at one time, considered to be America's hero, and has now been brought to as low as you can possibly go, most certainly is going to prison and, it looks like from this plea agreement, for a long time, conceivably 11 years.

GOLDBERG: In addition to prison time, Cunningham will have to forfeit his home and return $1.8 million to the government. He also faces more than a quarter-million dollars in fines. When Cunningham's resignation becomes official, the governor of California will have to call a special election. That election is expected to take place sometime next spring. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Goldberg in San Diego.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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