Government Auctions Off Cunningham's Bribes

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Antiques and other furnishings. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR. i

Federal authorities made more than $94,000 from the sale of antiques and other furnishings seized from former Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA). Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Horsley, NPR
Antiques and other furnishings. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR.

Federal authorities made more than $94,000 from the sale of antiques and other furnishings seized from former Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA).

Scott Horsley, NPR

Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the disgraced ex-Congressman from San Diego, is serving an eight-year prison term for taking bribes from defense contractors. Now some of his furniture is getting new quarters as well. Federal authorities Thursday auctioned off tens of thousands of dollars worth of antiques and other furnishings that Cunningham had received from a contractor. Proceeds from the sale will go to the IRS and the FBI.

An hour before the auction began, bidders gathered in a cavernous warehouse, checking out the merchandise spread out beneath a big American flag and banners of the Customs Service and the IRS.

Some shoppers came for a look at history. Others were just looking for bargains. Larry O’Boyle didn’t know until he arrived here that some of the seized merchandise for sale once belonged to a sitting Congressman.

"It seems like he really liked armoires," O’Boyle said. "There’s one, two, three, four, five, at least six, seven. I can’t imagine what he did with seven armoires, unless he had a huge house."

Antique armoires, Oriental rugs, a leather sofa and a sleigh bed were all among the bribes former Rep. Cunningham accepted from defense contractor Mitchell Wade. In exchange, Cunningham steered tens of millions of dollars in Pentagon business to Wade’s company MZM.

"Little Tommy" Sablan, who works for a local radio show in San Diego, hoped to buy an antique lingerie cabinet to give away to the show’s listeners. He noted that, in effect, the taxpayers of America have already paid for these items once.

"What we’re going to do is be kind of like Robin Hood. We’re going buy some stuff and then give it back to our listeners. Give it back to San Diego," Sablan said.

Cunningham’s ill-gotten furniture was not the only seized property up for sale. The government was also unloading pallets of confiscated liquor, cigarettes, gold necklaces, and two cartons of rubber wristbands with the motto, "Live Jewish."

"One of the unique things about Treasury Department auctions is we don’t discriminate," said Britney Sheehan, spokeswoman for the auctioneer, EG&G Technical Services. "Representative Cunningham’s items are being sold right along that of people who are committing software fraud and credit card theft and identity theft and drug smugglers and other money launderers."

When the auction began, the bidding moved quickly. "Little Tommy" Sablan sat in the front row, flashing his red bidder’s number. A few seats away, there was an actor sent by Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. The Colbert reporter stood out for a couple of reasons: He was wearing a tuxedo with a red, white and blue bow tie. And he brought his own bidding paddle.

Overall, the auction of Cunningham’s antiques brought in more than $94,000. That’s about $3,000 more than prosecutors say Mitchell Wade paid for the items. And he bought retail.

Bidders may have paid a premium because of Cunningham’s notoriety.

"I think most people were buying because of his name," said veteran auction-goer Rose Marie Moller.

Andy Rogerson admits he was after more than a rug, when he shelled out $1700 for one of Cunningham’s Oriental carpets.

"A little bit of history … Having something to put on the floor and say, 'Some dirtball Congressman provided this for us,'" Rogerson said.

The lingerie cabinet that "Little Tommy" Sablan had his eye on went for $4,000, more than his radio bosses could afford. He did manage to snap up a couple of antique nightstands, though. They’ll be given away on the radio Friday morning, as mementos of a sad chapter in political history, in which the public’s trust and the power of a Congressman’s office were also put on the block and sold.



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