ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There's a new vacancy on Capitol Hill after yesterday's resignation by California Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham. The former congressman, best known by his Navy nickname, "Duke," pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and tax evasion. The case involved defense contractors who helped Cunningham buy a luxury house and live on a yacht. Cunningham's case appears to be a classic example of how power attracts money, but it also raises questions. Just how does one member of Congress steer enough business to private interests to be worth such lavish and illegal rewards? Joining us with some answers is NPR's new Pentagon correspondent, John Hendren.
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
SIEGEL: Was there anything special about this congressman that made him especially useful for someone who is eager to win contracts?
HENDREN: Well, until recently, Cunningham was a swashbuckling, larger-than-life figure. He was best known as a decorated Vietnam fighter pilot. And what made him interesting to contractors was that he was also on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which meant he was one of a small number of members of Congress who had the power to dole out key contracts. He was also on the Intelligence Committee; that was important because they deal with so-called black contracts. And those contracts are given little scrutiny; they involve intelligence, and that's exactly the kind of contracts that we're talking about here.
SIEGEL: And he was in the majority in the House as well, being a Republican. What do we know about the contractors in the case?
HENDREN: Well, they were minor-leaguers in defense terms. The one we keep hearing about is a company called MZM Incorporated, and the founder of that company owned a yacht on which the congressman lived. He also bought the congressman's house and then resold it for a $700,000 loss. Another company that has been mentioned in the case is ACDS. This is another information company that deals in intelligence. But the interesting thing about it is that they're not huge defense contractors. And some of the people I've talked to today have suggested that because we're talking about small contracts, a company like MZM can go from zero contracts before 2003 to more than 66 million now. And the argument is that they did this largely by who they knew.
SIEGEL: Well, if Duke Cunningham stood up in court and said, `I admit I was bribed. I took bribes,' is somebody going to be investigated for the giving end of this scandal?
HENDREN: It's looking very likely that these companies are going to be seriously scrutinized, and you can bet that part of Cunningham's plea agreement is that he's going to rat out anybody who played a role with him. And one of the things that we're told is that when he accepted bribes, he accepted them, according to prosecutors, from this company.
SIEGEL: Now is it really possible for even a well-placed and powerful congressman, like Cunningham, to send business directly to the contractors, or would he presumably have to have somebody at the Pentagon involved in that?
HENDREN: Well, one thing he can do is make a phone call to the Pentagon, and when a congressional appropriator makes that call, those calls are taken very seriously. He is the fourth-ranking Republican on a subcommittee of 15 members; that's a whole lot different than one of the 60 members of the Senate Armed--of the House Armed Services Committee calling. He can do that. Also, sometimes Congress adds in money that the Pentagon doesn't ask for, and that's happened in a couple of cases that are being scrutinized here.
SIEGEL: Any Pentagon investigation under way that we know of?
HENDREN: Well, I just talked to a spokesman at the Pentagon, who told me that so far it's not clear whether there is such an investigation; that the inspector general could do such an investigation. None has been announced. And the Pentagon has been relatively quiet on this case.
SIEGEL: Well, John, thank you very much. And welcome both to NPR and to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
HENDREN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: That's our new Pentagon correspondent, John Hendren.
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