Disgraced Congressman Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham Is a Free Man Again

Federal judge in San Diego lifts all remaining restrictions on the 72-year-old convicted felon.

RANCHO DOMINGUEZ, CA - MARCH 23: Some of the antiques and other belongings of disgraced former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham are displayed for bidders before being auctioned off on March 23, 2006 in the Los Angeles-area community of Rancho Dominguez, California. Rep. Cunningham, of Escondido, California, was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison for taking bribes from defense contractors. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
July 10, 2014, 3:34 p.m.

A fed­er­al judge says it is time to for­give Randy “Duke” Cun­ning­ham, the most cor­rupt mem­ber of Con­gress ever if meas­ured by the amount of bribes he ad­mit­ted ac­cept­ing.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Larry Alan Burns, in a rul­ing is­sued Ju­ly 1 in San Diego, has gran­ted Cun­ning­ham’s re­quest to have his post­pris­on su­per­vi­sion ended early, writ­ing a fi­nal leg­al chapter on the sor­did tale of the flam­boy­ant ace fight­er pi­lot who went to Con­gress as a hero in 1991 and left in 2005 as a dis­graced felon.

The Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an spent more than sev­en years in pris­on after plead­ing guilty in Novem­ber 2005 to charges of tax eva­sion and con­spir­acy to com­mit bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Cun­ning­ham, who was 64 when he was sen­tenced in March 2006, had used his po­s­i­tions on the House Ap­pro­pri­ations and In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees to steer luc­rat­ive con­tracts to those who would help him fin­ance an ex­tra­vag­ant life­style fea­tur­ing 19th-cen­tury French an­tiques, yachts, Per­sian rugs, hunt­ing trips, a Rolls Royce, and a $2.55 mil­lion home in an ex­clus­ive com­munity in San Diego County.

It all un­raveled in 2005 when The San Diego Uni­on-Tribune wrote about the cor­rup­tion, trig­ger­ing a fed­er­al probe that found, among many oth­er things, that Cun­ning­ham had drawn up a “bribe menu” on con­gres­sion­al note­pa­per, out­lining what bribes he would need to de­liv­er a con­tract or ear­mark.

By the end of the year, Cun­ning­ham was out of Con­gress and con­victed of ac­cept­ing at least $2.4 mil­lion in bribes. He was sen­tenced to 100 months in pris­on, in what was then the longest pris­on sen­tence ever giv­en to a mem­ber of Con­gress. (The re­cord was sur­passed four years later when Rep. Wil­li­am Jef­fer­son, D-La., was sent away for 13 years.)

Cun­ning­ham was re­leased from fed­er­al pris­on in Tuc­son, Ar­iz., in Feb­ru­ary 2013 and then spent nearly four months in a halfway house in New Or­leans. Last month, the former House mem­ber filed a re­quest to be freed of all re­main­ing re­stric­tions on his free­dom.

Burns gran­ted the re­quest last week. “The court be­lieves that the concept of simple for­give­ness should be part of the equa­tion here,” the judge wrote. “For­give­ness is a mor­al qual­ity and a so­cial good and is im­port­ant to a sys­tem of res­tor­at­ive justice…. There comes a time to for­give.”

He noted that Cun­ning­ham had served a long jail sen­tence and spent time in a halfway house and un­der house ar­rest. “Be­sides these dir­ect con­sequences that he suffered for his il­leg­al ac­tions, he lost his home, his mar­riage, and his repu­ta­tion. At some point, once justice has been served, the sys­tem must take care to avoid erect­ing road­b­locks that might pre­vent an of­fend­er from re­in­teg­rat­ing in­to so­ci­ety and be­com­ing a pro­duct­ive and use­ful cit­izen again.”

Burns did not min­im­ize the sever­ity of Cun­ning­ham’s crimes. “There is no ques­tion that Mr. Cun­ning­ham’s of­fenses were ag­grav­ated, in­volving seri­al cor­rupt acts and de­cep­tion,” he wrote, adding poin­tedly, “And the de­cep­tion didn’t end with the sen­ten­cing. Mr. Cun­ning­ham sub­sequently at­temp­ted to ob­struct justice by sub­mit­ting a false af­fi­davit” in the tri­al of one of the con­tract­ors who had bribed him re­peatedly. In the af­fi­davit, Cun­ning­ham claimed there had been no bribes. Judge Burns said he “gave short shrift” to the af­fi­davit, but he said Cun­ning­ham had “per­petu­ated his dis­hon­est be­ha­vi­or by sub­mit­ting it.”

Cun­ning­ham’s re­quest, filed on June 14 in U.S. Dis­trict Court in the South­ern Dis­trict of Cali­for­nia, provides the first real look at the life the former law­maker has lived since his re­lease from pris­on. The doc­u­ments in­clude a per­son­al ap­peal from Cun­ning­ham as well as let­ters of re­com­mend­a­tion from pris­on guards, a min­is­ter, a re­tired gen­er­al, and neigh­bors. It even in­cludes a pic­ture of a beam­ing Cun­ning­ham hold­ing two re­mark­ably cute pup­pies.

The life he por­trays is com­fort­able but far from his high-fly­ing life­style as a mem­ber of Con­gress and a fa­vor­ite on the Re­pub­lic­an speak­ing cir­cuit when he ac­cep­ted gifts of tick­ets to con­certs and sport­ing events from con­tract­ors and at­ten­ded parties where pros­ti­tutes were present. After liv­ing in a halfway house and then in his broth­er’s house in Little Rock, Ark., he said he has pur­chased a “mod­est” house in Hot Springs Vil­lage. A gated com­munity in the foot­hills of the Ou­achita Moun­tains, Hot Springs Vil­lage takes up 26,000 acres and boasts of a “fun-filled re­cre­ation­al life­style” with nine golf courses, 11 lakes, 24 miles of nature trails, 16 ten­nis courts, three swim­ming pools, and a five-star fit­ness cen­ter.

The San Diego Uni­on-Tribune re­por­ted that Cun­ning­ham paid $265,000 in Au­gust last year for the three-bed­room, three-bath, 2,600-square-foot home.

In an in­ter­view with the pa­per, Cun­ning­ham, now 72, said the scan­dal cost him his fam­ily. His second wife di­vorced him after his guilty plea. “I would tell my con­stitu­ents and my friends that I’m sorry for the ac­tions I took,” he told the pa­per. “There is not a day goes by that I don’t ask my­self, how the hell did I do what I did? You get caught up in something. I let it hap­pen, and it was wrong.”

Cun­ning­ham has been fight­ing pro­state can­cer for some time and de­scribed him­self in the court fil­ings as “80 per­cent mil­it­ary com­bat dis­abled.” And he notes he con­tin­ues to pay the court-ordered resti­tu­tion and fines that were part of his sen­tence. He was re­quired to pay $1.8 mil­lion for back taxes and $1.85 mil­lion in resti­tu­tion for bribes as well as to sur­render the pro­ceeds from the sale of his house. In the fil­ing, he said he pays the IRS $23,000 a year while an­oth­er $3,000 a month is taken from his vari­ous gov­ern­ment pen­sions.

In the fil­ing, Cun­ning­ham said he is work­ing with a loc­al vo­lun­teer fire de­part­ment and at­tend­ing Bible school. He told the judge that there are “few days where I do not re­flect on my ac­tions that brought so much hurt to so many people that had placed their trust in me.” He ad­ded, “God for­gave Dav­id, and I know he has for­giv­en me…. The rest of my life will be ded­ic­ated to help­ing oth­ers.” He con­cluded his let­ter to the judge, writ­ing, “I pray that my Decem­ber of live [sic] will al­low me to be free to reach out and help oth­ers without re­stric­tion. I am lim­ited by dis­ab­il­it­ies but do all that I can. I have lived the past ten years as the man I thought I was, but went astray.”

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