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Originally published Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Rep. Cunningham resigns, admits tax evasion, bribes

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned from Congress on Monday after tearfully confessing to evading taxes and conspiring to pocket...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned from Congress on Monday after tearfully confessing to evading taxes and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode.

The decorated Vietnam-era fighter pilot, 63, entered his guilty plea to a federal court in San Diego and then choked up as he said: "I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my high office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, and most importantly, the trust of my friends and family."

His plea marks the second conviction in a week to emerge from a wave of federal investigations into the relationships between leading members of Congress and lobbyists and contractors working to curry legislative favors.

In an unrelated investigation, Michael Scanlon, an associate of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to conspiring to bribe a congressman and other public officials. A Justice Department inquiry into Abramoff's activities has been broadened to include at least half a dozen lawmakers.

Scanlon and Cunningham have agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors as their investigations continue.

Prosecutors said Cunningham, a decorated Vietnam-era fighter pilot and eight-term House member, "demanded, sought and received" illicit payments in the form of cash, house payments, furnishings, cars and vacations from four co-conspirators, including two defense contractors, over the past five years.

U.S. Attorney Carol Lam told reporters that Cunningham, a member of the influential House Appropriations defense subcommittee and the intelligence committee, "did the worst thing an elected official can do: He enriched himself through his position and violated the trust of those that put him there."

The plea agreement, which Cunningham signed the day before Thanksgiving, said he must forfeit his house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; as well as $1,851,508 in cash and a long list of furniture and carpets.

Sentencing was set for Feb. 27. Cunningham faces up to five years in prison on each of the two counts to which he pleaded guilty: conspiracy and tax evasion.

The plea agreement cites an escalating series of payments to the congressman over the past few years, including a graduation party for his daughter, the purchase and upkeep of a yacht and a Rolls-Royce, antiques, rugs and a payment to cover the capital-gains tax when he sold his Del Mar, Calif., house to a defense contractor in 2003.

Among gifts he accepted were a $7,200 Louis-Philippe commode, circa 1850; three antique nightstands; a leaded-glass cabinet; a washstand; a buffet; and four armoires. After paying $13,500 toward a Rolls-Royce in April 2002, one of his benefactors tossed in $17,889.96 toward the car's repairs less than a month later.

In 2004, the tax-evasion charge said, Cunningham reported joint taxable income of $121,079, when his actual income was at least $1,215,458.

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The investigation began in June after reports in San Diego newspapers said defense contractor Mitchell J. Wade, founder of MZM Inc., bought the congressman's house in Del Mar in late 2003 for $1.675 million — $700,000 more than he sold it for — and let Cunningham stay rent-free on his 42-foot yacht, the Duke-Stir, while in Washington.

Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, used the proceeds from the sale to buy a $2.55 million mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. Cunningham took actions to obtain government funding that benefited the two defense contractors and then pressured Pentagon officials to award the necessary contracts to those contractors, the government said.

Cunningham denied wrongdoing at the time, although he conceded he had exercised poor judgment in the house and yacht transactions.

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