Former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham is serving time in a federal prison in Arizona. But still trickling out are the full details of his audacity in soliciting bribes for government contracts.
The latest developments are featured is a segment of PBS’ series “Expose: America’s Investigative Reports,” which begins airing this week. Called “Quid Pro Quo,” it focuses on how the story unfolded and how the game of contracts is played in Washington.
The Copley News Service and San Diego Union-Tribune’s Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, George E. Condon Jr. and Dean Calbreath won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting, which led to Cunningham’s admission and resignation. It was Stern who, in 2005, initially caught wind of Cunningham’s sale of his house to another defense contractor who then held it for a year before selling it at a $700,000 loss, even though the real estate market was thriving.
The team kept digging, coming up with a series of stories on Cunningham’s corruption and shedding light on the culture of lobbying in Washington. On a piece of congressional stationery, Cunningham wrote a “bribe menu,” detailing the monetary bribes he was seeking and their corresponding rewards.
All told, Cunningham accepted millions in bribes for tens of millions of “earmarks” of classified military contracts, operating from posh D.C. restaurant and a lavish yacht tied up along the Potomac River.
“We think it is just such a vivid story of Washington run amok,” Kammer says.
The reporting team recently published a book, “The Wrong Stuff,” and are now seeking to sell the film rights. Outside of the tales of money payoffs, one of my favorite anecdotes has to do with Cunningham’s insistence that his days as a Navy aviator and fighter pilot instructor were the basis for the movie “Top Gun,” right down to the singing of the Righteous Brothers song “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” The movie’s screenwriter and technical adviser say it simply is not true.
The scandal is not over yet — and nor is the culture that led to the corruption. Brent Wilkes, the defense contractor accused of sending money Cunningham’s way, is currently on trial. Dusty Foggo, formerly the No. 3 at the CIA, is awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in the scheme.
Although a new Democratic Congress has tightened rules on lobbying activities, Kammer and Stern doubt it means major reforms that will end such lobbying activity and, certainly, the habit of “earmarking.”
Says Stern, “There’s always going to be another iteration of this, another group of guys who want to do business together.”