Former California Congressman "Duke" Cunningham will be sentenced today for taking bribes from defense contractors. The San Diego-area Republican has confessed to accepting nearly $2.5 million in cash and favors, in exchange for steering Pentagon business the contractors' way.
Prosecutors are seeking a maximum 10-year prison sentence for Cunningham. For the better part of a decade, they say, the congressman effectively put a "for sale" sign outside the nation's capitol -- accepting a boat, a Rolls Royce, antique furniture and envelopes stuffed with cash from friendly defense contractors.
Cunningham's conduct is all the more galling to House of Representative colleagues like Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland, given the former fighter pilot's public persona as a decorated war hero and a passionate, sometimes tearful defender of the U.S. military.
"He talked sanctimoniously about his love for our troops and at the very same time, he was selling out the troops in order to enrich himself," Strickland says. "I hope he gets the maximum sentence. In fact, if it was possible, I'd like him to see more than 10 years."
Prosecutors say before his resignation last year, Cunningham used to bully Pentagon officials to steer more business to his co-conspirators. He even gave one contractor congressional stationery to draft letters for his signature. In short, prosecutors say, Cunningham acted exactly the way one would expect of a congressman who had been bought for more than $2.4 million.
Many of Cunningham's constituents want to see tough justice. "For the community, it's important for people to know that the system works, and that he's going to be held accountable for that. I think that's what's important to people," says fellow San Diego-area Congresswoman Susan Davis.
Even Cunningham's defense lawyers acknowledge that a lengthy prison term is warranted, but ask, "How much is enough?" They're hoping a judge will let Cunningham off with a six-year sentence. They say the 64-year-old, who's had two bouts with prostate cancer, is unlikely to live much longer than that.
Defense lawyers add that Cunningham already is penniless, homeless, estranged from family and disgraced in the eyes of his countrymen. He's not totally alone, though. Several dozen supporters have written letters on Cunningham's behalf, including friends, fellow fighter pilots and his 91-year-old mother. Her hand-written note comes on stationery bearing an American flag and the motto, "Support Our Troops."
Folk singer and one-time anti-war activist Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary wrote a letter, praising Cunningham's work on behalf of children. And Father Joe Carroll, who runs a homeless program in San Diego, urged the judge to be firm, but merciful.
"I go back 20 years with the man," Father Carroll says. "And 20 years ago, he was great. The last six, seven years, he just got greedy, I guess. But as we say in the church, I deal with the sinner. We still give you penance. There's a punishment due to your crime. But let's make sure the punishment doesn't destroy the person."
Defense lawyers note that in the last 40 years, no congressman has been sentenced to more than eight years for corruption. And no one who's pleaded guilty, as Cunningham did, got more than six. Prosecutors counter their 10-year recommendation already gives the disgraced congressman a considerable break from the life sentence he could be facing.
Prosecutors also note that when Cunningham himself was a lawmaker, he supported longer minimum sentences and opposed "soft on crime" liberal judges. When Cunningham's own son Todd was caught in the late 1990s with 400 pounds of marijuana, the congressman issued a statement saying: "We are disappointed, and he must face his responsibilities."