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Former California Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham will be sentenced today for taking bribes from defense contractors. The San Diego Republican has confessed to accepting nearly two and a half million dollars in cash and favors to steer Pentagon business to the contractors.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
Prosecutors are seeking a maximum ten-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 capital, 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 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.
Representative TED STRICKLAND (Democrat, Ohio): 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. I hope he gets the maximum sentence. In fact, if it was possible, I would like for him to see more than ten years.
HORSLEY: 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.
Fellow San Diego lawmaker Susan Davis says Cunningham's former constituents need to see tough justice.
Representative SUSAN DAVIS (Democrat, California): 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.
HORSLEY: Even Cunningham's defense lawyers acknowledge that a lengthy prison term is warranted. But they ask how much is enough? They're hoping the judge will let Cunningham off with a six-year sentence. They say the 64-year-old, who's had two bouts of prostate cancer, is unlikely to live much longer than that. Defense lawyers add that Cunningham is already 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 handwritten 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.
Father JOE CARROLL (Director, St. Vincent de Paul Village): I go back 20 years with the man. And, you know, 20 years ago he was great. In the last six, seven years, he just got greedy, I guess. But you know, as we say in the church, I deal with the sinner, you know, 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.
HORSLEY: Defense lawyers note in the last 40 years no Congressman has been sentenced to less than eight years for corruption, and no one who's pleaded guilty, as Cunningham did, got more than six. Prosecutors counter their ten-year recommendation already gives the Congressman a considerable break from the life sentence he could be facing. Prosecutors also note that when Cunningham himself was a lawmaker instead of a lawbreaker, 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're disappointed and he must face his responsibilities.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
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