Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in prison

Cunningham prosecutors: US Assistant Attorneys Phil L. B. Halpern, Jason Forge, Sanjahy Bharali
Cunningham prosecutors: US Assistant Attorneys Phil L. B. Halpern,
Jason Forge, Sanjahy Bharali after Cunningham sentencing 3/3/2006

I went to Cunningham's sentencing Friday (March 3, 2006) at the U.S. Courthouse in Downtown San Diego. There were lots of news camera and vans around all day. For those who don't know he was my Representative to the U.S. Congress from San Diego, before he was imprisoned for $2.4 million in bribes.

I listened to Judge Burns deal with a counterfeiting case and drug user parole violation case in the morning. Burns seemed even-handed and careful in his rulings.

I then went upstairs to wait in line for the sentencing in a bigger courtroom. I talked to Union-Tribune columnist Logan Jenkins who happened to be nearby in line. Most of the people were press. I knew the names, but didn't know what they looked like. I saw Seth Hettena of the AP, who has written several Cunningham articles.

Then we were led in. The seats were split between the press, public, and family (includes Cunningham friends). The friends I recognized were Congressman Duncan Hunter, Father Joe Carroll, Dan McKinnon (son of a former congressman; Dan is boarding Cunningham), and Cunningham's RIO in Vietnam, Willie Driscoll. Former Congressman Clair Burgener, who has Alzheimers, sat directly in front of me. The children were not present, at the request of Cunningham (and his wife was not present).

The defense and prosecution plead their cases, rehashing what were in their previously-filed briefs. Cunningham made a statement. He seemed emotionally and physically weak and sad, and much thinner. I couldn't hear all his statement, as his voice was shallow, but it seems some of the press did (with better seats). He expressed regret for what he did. The one sentence I wrote down was: "I think I'll trust my friends less, your honor, so I won't make those same wrong U-turns [criminal acts]". Burns listened carefully through it all.

Here's an outline of Judge Burns' ruling:

Sentencing guidelines:

  • $2.4 million bribe earns 16 sentencing "points"
  • 4 points for being an elected official
  • 0 points for orchestrating the bribes (not clear either way if he did nor not)
  • 0 points for public statements denying the crimes (Burns says that's common with public officials)
  • 2 points for obstruction of justice (prompting rug vendors to lie).
  • -3 points subtracted because Cunningham accepted responsibility
  • -2 points for assistance to Department of Justice (more reduction may be coming for future assistance, but it's too early in the investigation).
  • Total of 33 points, giving 135-168 months to sentencing guidelines.

Here's some comments made by Burns:

  • Bribes spread over 5 years, 2000-2005 is aggravating. It wasn't just one "U turn".
  • The $2.4 in bribes "emasculates" all other bribes.
  • "Bid rigging" affected many defense contractors, who thought the system was honest
  • Hugely affected confidence in government.
  • Burns was bothered by Cunningham's bullying. It was reprehensible, beyond pale. Defense officials were trying to do their jobs.
  • Burns was confounded by the choice you (Cunningham) made. Burns recalled reading an article about a lobbyist who made $2.5 million in 2003. Burns didn't name the lobbyist, but said Cunningham knows who he's talking about [my note: was this Bill Lowery, who earned $2 million in 2003? See http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/politics/20051223-9999-lz1n23lewis.html ]. Burns said Cunningham with his stature in Congress should have earned at least twice as much in a year as a lobbyist if he wanted more money. Burns said you (Cunningham) weren't wet, cold, hungry, yet you did these things (took bribes).
  • Burns said the real harm was loss of confidence in government works.
  • Burns lamented that politics today is more shrill today. Opponents are now "enemies". Burns said he was an optimist, that your (Cunningham's) conduct was an abberation (among members of Congress).
  • Burns took in account Cunningham's brave military service in an unpopular war.
  • Burns was also impressed by two letters of Support:
    • Ronald Ress -- Cunningham intervened with Vietnamese government to get Ress' wife out of custody and out of the country
    • Charles Nesby -- Cunningham mentored Nesby at a time when Black pilots were rare.

Judge Burns then dished out the sentence:

  • 100 months (8 years, 4 months). Count 1 60 months [Conspiracy to Bribe] and Count 2 40 months [Tax Evasion]
  • 3 years suspended release.
  • $1,804,031.50 tax liability to be paid at $1500/month while in prison and $1000/month after release.
  • Forfeit $1.8 million in cash.
  • Forfeit furniture (now in possession of the U.S. government)
  • No upgraded sentencing score.
  • Imprisoned immediately at MCC San Diego. Report Friday by next week for the permanent facility. Burns \*recommends\* a Level 2 institution. He recommended Taft [Central California] (ran by a contract agency, not the U.S. Bureau of Prisons)
  • Good time can reduce sentence by 10%-15%

We all left the courtroom and there were a billion (or so) cameras and newspeople outside the courthouse. Outside, the prosecution gave a quick news conference, as did Rep. Duncan Hunter, Fr. Joe Carroll, and Dan McKinnon.

Cunningham was imprisoned immediately at MCC San Diego across the street (prisoner locator).

- Dan Anderson

Related news articles (more Cunningham scandal news articles and cartoons):

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