Congressional Earmarks and Duke Cunningham

The Wrong Stuff: A Review

Disclaimer: One of the authors of this book, Jerry Kammer, is an old friend of the family. It was he who sent me a free copy of the book to review.
It is "the biggest case of Congressional corruption ever documented." Shocking in its scope and in the brazenness of its conspirators, the Duke Cunningham bribery caper is a tale not only of individual malfeasance that would make a grifter cry, but also of a culture in Washington, D.C. that threatens the integrity of government itself.

The saga of Duke Cunningham -- from a popular, athletically inclined small town boy to war hero, to Congressman, to convicted felon -- is told in a new book by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporters who broke the story. Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, and George E. Condon, Jr. of Copely News Service and Deal Calbreath of the San Diego Union Tribune shared the award for National Reporting in 2006 with James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times, who won for exposing the top secret NSA program to spy on terrorists.

What Stern, Kammer and Condon  uncovered in their investigation of Cunningham's criminality went far beyond the rather seedy yet spectacular corruption of one Congressman. The authors have written a brief against the budget device that led Cunningham (and no doubt others) down a primrose path toward temptation and ultimately, a moral surrender to turpitude. It is a device that threatens the foundations of trust in our elected officials: the belief that they are acting in the interests of their constituents and not to line their pockets with gifts and cash from the legions of lobbyists whose only job is to wring as much of our tax dollars as is humanly possible from the government and deposit it in the bank accounts of their clients (keeping a healthy portion of pork for themselves).

The device is  earmarks, of course. And if you can come away after reading this book and not be shaking in anger at the unadulterated and transparent corruption that earmarks have fostered, then you don't pay taxes or simply don't care about the theft of your money.

In truth, there is nothing illegal about earmarks and, as the authors point out in a brilliant chapter on the practice, they can be used for good at times. As an example of earmarks being used for a beneficial purpose, a lone Texas Congressman steered billions of dollars to the Afghan resistance fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980's. Said Representative Charlie Wilson (whose story was told in the hugely entertaining Charlie Wilson's War),

"There are three branches of the government and you have to explain that to the executive branch every once and a while and earmarks are the best way to do that."
Wilson believed that the Afghan resistance would never have triumphed without earmarks because the CIA would not have spent the money effectively.

But the authors make the case it is not necessarily what earmarks are for that is the problem. After all, one man's earmark is another man's necessary expenditure. What may look like a pork road project to one person living far away from the location where construction would take place could in fact be a "quality of life" issue to someone directly affected by the increased traffic flow and safer driving that a particular earmarked project would bring.

Rather it is the way that earmarks are included in the budget process that cries out for radical reform. Earmarks are usually dropped into spending bills anonymously and are rarely debated on the floor of the House. Or they are added during mark-up sessions or even during House-Senate conferences. Sometimes, they are included in the Committee's report on the final spending bill and not even passed on to the President when he signs it.

Earmarks were a problem going back in the 1980's. For example, the authors point to the 1987 Transportation bill vetoed by an astonished Ronald Reagan, who counted no fewer than 121 earmarks in the bill. Both the House and Senate - Democrats and Republicans - shrugged off the Gipper's disapproval and passed the bill over the President's veto overwhelmingly. In 1991, the number of earmarks in the pork-laden Transportation bill had grown to 538; 1850 by 1998; and by 2005 the total number of earmarks reached a mind numbing 6,373 costing an additional $24.2 billion. (Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense).

Newt Gingrich and the Republicans saw the earmark as a ticket to a permanent majority. The Republicans would place newer or more vulnerable members on one of the Appropriations Committees, which would give them access to the lobbyists who, in exchange for an earmark, would fill their campaign coffers with cash as well as shower the member with gifts, junkets, and other goodies.

It is a sordid, depressing, but perfectly legal practice. But to a man like Duke Cunningham, it was a goldmine, a path to the riches and lifestyle he had craved since a boy in the small Missouri town where he grew up. Graduating from the University of Missouri, Cunningham got married to his college sweetheart and took a job in Hinsdale, Illinois as an assistant coach of the swim team. At that time, the Hinsdale swim team was coached by the legendary Doc Watson, who won 12 straight state swimming titles and sent several of his athletes to the Olympics. Cunningham was later to brag that he was responsible for much of the team's success - a statement belied by both former athletes he coached as well as Doc Watson himself.

But that was Duke. And after losing a close friend in Viet Nam, Cunningham decided to enlist in the Navy and fly jets. Proving himself a dedicated aviator, Cunningham's diligence was rewarded on one spectacular day in May of 1972. On May 10th, in a dogfight immortalized by the History Channel's "Aces of Vietnam" documentary, Cunningham engaged and shot down 3 enemy MIG's. Coupled with the two he shot down earlier in the year, that made Lt. Randy Cunningham an air ace - the only naval ace of the war.

But there were troubling indications that Duke Cunningham had a moral weakness when it came to money, even back then. Prior to receiving the Navy Cross for the action that made him an ace, Cunningham and his backseat man Willie Driscoll informed their commanding officer that they were going to refuse the most prestigious decoration the Navy awards and "hold out for the Medal of Honor."

Apparently, Duke had been promised by a Washington bureaucrat that he would receive the Medal of Honor and felt he deserved it - and the $100 a month that came with it. And even though his commanding officer disabused Duke and Driscoll of the notion that they were going to be awarded the MOH, to many who became aware of the story, this early indication of Cunningham's moral blindness was telling indeed.

Being feted after the war as a hero and role model, Cunningham also saw how the rich lived and craved that lifestyle until it became an obsession. Barely elected to Congress in 1990, Cunningham set out to get the most out of his position of trust.

The story of his bribery is told in a spare, no nonsense manner by the authors. It traces Cunningham's relationships with his co-conspirators Mitchell Wade, Brent Wilkes, and Thomas Kontogiannis, and how they milked the government for federal contracts using earmarks - often in the "black budget" of classified projects - while Cunningham was paid for his services in cash.

The most unbelievable piece of evidence against Cunningham was the so called "bribery menu" where the Congressman actually wrote down on a piece of Congressional stationary how much he expected in kickbacks for each kind of earmark he successfully pushed through Congress. The menu showed that Cunningham wanted a $140,000 yacht for the first $16 million in government contracts. Thereafter, he expected $50,000 in bribes for each additional million in contracts.

Missing this piece of evidence the first time around, prosecutors got a tip about the document and deciphered it. The Congressman, who had been proclaiming his innocence, buckled at that point and agreed to plead guilty. He is currently serving an 8 year sentence - the longest prison sentence ever given to a Congressman for bribery.

But the question that the authors never quite answer and seem to dangle in front of the readers, tempting them perhaps to make their own judgment, goes to the heart of the debate over earmarks. Did the earmarks themselves corrupt Cunningham or did they simply act as a catalyst for his already warped sense of entitlement?

If it is the latter, then this is a story of one more venal politician caught with his hands in the cookie jar. But what if it's the former? What if earmarks themselves (and the way they are currently being used and abused) is at bottom, an overwhelming temptation to members and all but irresistible to all but the most incorruptible.

There are now 35,000 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. whose ability to deliver tens of thousands of dollars to Congressional campaigns means that members must pay obeisance to them or lose out on the gravy train. It is a broken system that no one can figure out how to fix. Some see government-financed elections as the answer - unsatisfying because most experts agree that it would make races even less competitive than they are now. Others see unlimited contributions with full and immediate disclosure on the internet. This would be another invitation to permanent incumbency.

The authors sensibly do not offer any grandiose solutions to this dilemma. They are, after all, reporters not policy wonks. All they've done is uncovered the facts and told a story - a maddening, frustrating, sad, and yet riveting story of one man's fall from the heights of power and privilege to the absolute lowest depths of prison and disgrace. It is a compelling human drama told in an entertaining manner. And in a way, like all good journalism, it is a call to action - to address the problem of earmarks before the corruption they engender destroys what credibility our lawmakers and government have left.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to American Thinker, and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse.
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