Cunningham Receives Eight-Year Sentence.

A judge rejected Randall "Duke" Cunningham's tearful bid for mercy today and sentenced the war hero, "Top Gun" instructor and disgraced former congressman to 8 years, 4 months in federal prison for bribery.

Looking thin and haggard, Cunningham, with head downcast, listened as US District Judge Larry A. Burns imposed the sentence.

"You've undermined the opportunity [that] honest politicians have to do good," Burns said.

Burns ordered Cunningham to pay $1.8 million in restitution and refused his request for a week to say goodbye to his family. Cunningham was led from the courtroom by US marshals.

Burns said the only reason he didn't give Cunningham 10 years was because of his military service during the Vietnam War.

Cunningham, a Rancho Santa Fe Republican, confessed to taking $2.4 million in bribes and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

Defense attorneys had argued that no member of Congress convicted of corruption had ever been sentenced to more than six years in prison.

Earlier, his voice breaking, Cunningham, 64, asked Burns for clemency.

"After years of service to my country, going the right way, I made a very wrong turn," Cunningham said, slowly. "No man has ever been more sorry."

He said he would make repentance "a lifelong process" and would gladly do community service. He said he wants to repair the damage he has done to his family.

"Some say I've lost everything," he said. "But, your Honor, you have no idea. I have three children. I asked them to stay away. I didn't want them to go through this spectacle."

He defended his Vietnam service and rejected the prosecutors' assertion that he was ego-driven. "I didn't jump into a pack of MIGs for ego," Cunningham said, looking at prosecutors, "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

Cunningham's fall from prominence was swift. He represented a Republican district in the affluent suburbs of northern San Diego County, had never encountered a close reelection race, and was a key fundraiser for other Republicans.

But in June, the Washington bureau of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that defense contractor Mitchell Wade had paid what appeared to be an inflated price for Cunningham's home in Del Mar Heights. The sale allowed Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, to buy a mansion in swank Rancho Santa Fe.

Three months before the story broke, Cunningham's chief of staff in Washington had abruptly but quietly quit to become a lobbyist.

The aide had recognized the sale price of the house as a bribe and a year earlier had advised Cunningham to resign or at least not run for reelection, a warning that Cunningham angrily ignored, according to federal prosecutors. He was reelected in November 2004 to an eighth term.

Once the story was in the newspaper, federal prosecutors launched an investigation. In late November, Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion.

Mitchell Wade, the contractor who bought the Del Mar Heights house, pleaded guilty last month to bribery and awaits sentencing in Washington federal court. The amount Wade paid in bribes - including a price that was $700,000 above market value for the Del Mar Heights house - was put at more than $1 million.

Cunningham's lawyers had argued that Cunningham deserved leniency in sentencing because of his war record, ill health, lack of criminal record and contrition. He was described by doctors as suicidal, depressed and in chronic pain from injuries incurred during his Navy career.

Prosecutors countered that he had already gotten a break when they agreed, in the plea agreement, to ask for no more than 10 years rather than the 20-year-plus maximum.

The plea agreement, which forced Cunningham to resign, provided a detailed list of the cash payments, sweetheart real estate deals and other luxury items that the co-conspirators provided him in exchange for his influence on key congressional committees to grant lucrative defense contracts involving technology used for intelligence gathering and analysis.

Beyond the house deal, Cunningham received antiques, cash, trips, home furnishings, free use of a yacht, a deal on a Rolls Royce, a party for one of his daughters, jewelry for his wife, and more. To cover his crimes, Cunningham falsified sales documents, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said he "bullied and hectored" Pentagon bureaucrats to approve contracts for Wade and contractor Brent Wilkes, including threatening to get one bureaucrat fired and ignoring a warning from one official that $700,000 in bills from Wilkes' firm seemed fraudulent.

On congressional stationery, Cunningham kept what prosecutors called a "bribe menu," indicating how much he demanded in exchange for certain amounts of contracts.

Far from being seduced by a lobbyist or corrupted by his own need for campaign contributions, Cunningham was portrayed as the mastermind of the bribery scheme, demanding payments and tributes in exchange for his inside influence.

Cunningham was elected to Congress on the strength of his status as a war hero and the ethical problems of the Democratic incumbent, who had been scolded by colleagues for sexually harassing staff members. Although he had never held public office, Cunningham was groomed by Republican kingmakers in San Diego.

He took office just as the US launched the Persian Gulf War to push Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. As a decorated fighter pilot from the Vietnam War, Cunningham was sought after by the national media, giving him a celebrity that few freshmen enjoyed.

Known for uncompromising rhetoric and conservative views, Cunningham rose in influence as Republicans gained control of the Congress and White House. He never lost the blustery manner of the cocky fighter pilot.

"In the Navy, he was given medals for ignoring danger signs and performing perilous and death-defying acts," Beverly Hills psychiatrist Dr. Saul Faerstein concluded after a five-hour interview with Cunningham in preparation for the sentencing recommendation.

"In Congress, he was expected to behave very differently, but the psyche cannot make such a U-turn easily."

Cunningham's attorneys had argued that Burns should consider Cunningham's record as a decorated fighter pilot "when he saved the lives of his fellow Americans at great risk to his own."

Awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest medal for bravery, Cunningham later taught at the Top Gun school. His fame, which was boosted by the 1986 movie "Top Gun" starring Tom Cruise, propelled him into politics.

Cunningham's wife, a school administrator, stood beside him in the summer when he denied the allegations. The couple now is estranged. Prosecutors decline to say whether she faces criminal charges.

The Rancho Santa Fe home has been sold for $2.6 million and Cunningham's share of the profits were seized by the government. An auction is set for March 23 for the antiques, rugs and other items, with the money to be confiscated by the Internal Revenue Service.

[Source: By Tony Perry, The Los Angeles Times, Us, 03Mar06]

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