Disgraced leader’s plight reflects on us

Just when we thought we were safe from ever having to think about him again, Randall C. “Duke” Cunningham has resurfaced.
Halfway through his 100-month prison sentence for what prosecutors called crimes “unprecedented for a sitting member of Congress,” the disgraced former member of the U.S. House of Representatives whose 50th District encompassed a large swath of North County is back in the news.
He wrote a chatty letter to one newspaper that asked how he was doing and he pleaded in another that his sentencing judge rescue him from spending the rest of his days in abject poverty. That would be because the Internal Revenue Service wants to collect back taxes, interest and penalties on the $2.4 million Cunningham collected in bribes.
The Duke says that he never would have agreed to his plea deal if he knew the tax collectors would come after him so rapaciously and he’d have to shell out more than the $1.8 million ordered in restitution. The IRS is after $1.3 million more.
The whole mess is a queasy combination of pathos, bathos and chutzpa, the latter a versatile Yiddish word for nerve, unmitigated gall.
In one of two letters that have made news, the Duke suggests to San Diego’s CityBeat that he’s finding redemption by using the skills he honed as a high school and college teacher to help fellow inmates earn high school equivalency diplomas and expand their intellectual horizons.
In the other, unearthed by freelance writer Seth Hettena, the ex-congressman complains to U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns that the IRS has put a levy on his military and congressional pensions and drained all of the more than $84,000 in a personal retirement account at a credit union. Beyond this, he wrote, the federal Bureau of Prisons intercepts his $2,000 monthly Social Security check and keeps it.
“The IRS has taken nearly everything I have worked for during my nearly 70 years. They have taken over or we have paid over 2.75 million dollars in assets, cash, homes, cars, ernings (sic) and retirement,” the Duke wrote. “After 40 years teaching my wife is living hand to mouth and staying in her 2 bedroom grandmothers home.”
He added, “You can only push a man so far, your honor … yes, I’ve made mistakes, but does that include killing me and my family.” He also wrote the judge, “You have just killed one of the most highly decorated veterans in the history of this nation — Atta Boy.”
So we recall anew just how shocked we were that Cunningham, a decorated jet fighter pilot in Vietnam, persuaded a foundering defense contractor seven years ago to buy his seaside house in Del Mar for $700,000 more than it was worth. The windfall swept the Duke into a posh, seven-and-a-half bath, $2.6 million mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, one of the ritziest enclaves in all the United States. The Del Mar place had never even been on the market.
Suddenly, goosed by the Duke’s abiding influence with the Pentagon from his long tenure on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, business boomed at MZM Inc., the defense-related software company run by the new Del Mar homeowner, Mitchell Wade.
Dostoevsky opined that we should judge a society on the way it treats its prisoners. In that case, I feel sad for Cunningham and hope that he be done no gratuitous harm.
I can’t shake the image of him walking along Front Street to the federal court house on sentencing day, his suit hanging limply from his once robust frame, stumbling and falling to the sidewalk in a failed attempt to get around television cameramen who themselves had tripped while treading backward to get their shots. But Cunningham stunningly betrayed the trust we put in him — and some suggest his deals with marginal defense contractors compromised the safety of our troops in the field — and for this he’s got to pay, through prison time and back taxes both.

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