Summit Cautions; China's Theft; U.S.-Canada Cooperation; Watchdog Journalism
Good morning. It’s Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Thirteen years ago today, a California congressman issued a press release denying any impropriety in a sketchy real estate transaction. The news release came in response to an investigative story written by Marcus Stern of the Copley newspaper chain’s Washington bureau and published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Copley’s flagship paper and the most influential news outlet in Cunningham’s congressional district.
Stern’s June 12, 2005 piece was a blockbuster and it began with a bang:
“A defense contractor with ties to Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham took a $700,000 loss on the purchase of the congressman’s Del Mar house while the congressman, a member of the influential defense appropriations subcommittee, was supporting the contractor’s efforts to get tens of millions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon.”
The defense contractor was Mitchell J. Wade, a former Defense Department civilian employee who had hung his shingle in the private sector. Although he lived in Northern Virginia, Wade purchased Duke Cunningham’s family home in California for $1.6 million in November 2003 and then put it back on the market in late December. The house was grossly overvalued at that price, however, and it sat vacant for eight months until it was sold -- for $975,000. The whole deal was suspicious on its face, but in the June 13 press release, Cunningham reiterated what he’d told Marc Stern, which was that he had “no reason to believe the value of the house was inflated then, and I have no reason to think so today.”
This claim turned out to be untrue, and it came back to haunt Cunningham, as we’ll see in a moment. First, though, allow me to point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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Duke Cunningham was controversial long before Marc Stern’s June 12, 2005 exposé about his shady Del Mar real estate deal. A combat pilot in Vietnam -- Cunningham was the U.S. Navy’s first “ace” in that war -- he ran for Congress as a Republican in 1990 and won in a swing district that leaned Democratic. But he was no moderate.
In 1992, he made headlines for saying, on separate occasions, that liberal Democratic political leaders and Vietnam War protesters “should be lined up and shot.” In 1995, he got into a physical altercation with pugnacious Virginia Democrat Jim Moran as the two men were leaving the House floor. The same year, during a debate on water legislation, of all things, he lashed out at Democrats “who want to put homos in the military.” When liberal House members Patricia Schroeder and Bernie Sanders rose to object, he barked, “Sit down, you socialist!” I suppose, in his defense, he was half-right in this last instance, but that wasn’t the point, as Cunningham demonstrated in 1998 when he was drawn into a heated argument at a public forum in his district, one punctuated by him extending his middle finger to an elderly critic and shouting what the local paper genteelly called “the two-word meaning of his one-finger salute.”
But in 2005 his colleagues and constituents learned that he wasn’t merely offensive. Duke Cunningham was grubby and corrupt.
The federal investigation triggered by the San Diego Union-Tribune story -- and follow-up stories by the paper -- unearthed a web of criminal behavior. He’d parlayed his appointment to the House Appropriations Committee into not just a much bigger house than the one he pawned off on Mitchell Wade, but a luxury boat (the “Duke-Stir”), a yacht club membership, a Rolls-Royce, and a house full of luxury items. He amassed this haul by drawing up a written “bribe menu” with prices on what it would cost to help deliver a federal contract or congressional earmark.
Disgraced, indicted, and convicted on bribery charges, Cunningham was sentenced to 100 months in a federal penitentiary, the longest prison sentence ever meted out to a member of Congress at the time.
Marcus Stern and Copley News Service won a Pulitzer Prize, one shared with reporting staff at the Union-Tribune. They also collaborated on a book about the case, “The Wrong Stuff,” written primarily by George E. Condon Jr., Stern’s editor and bureau chief. But then a sad thing happened. The Copley chain and its Washington bureau just disappeared, swallowed up by the technology-driven reconfiguration of the news business that has hollowed out most American newspapers.
Marc went to work for ProPublica, and George covers the White House for National Journal, so those men, both of whom are friends, did fine. Here’s what I’m mourning: the loss of oversight. You know who is covering the San Diego congressional delegation in Washington these days? Essentially nobody.
A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar in Washington about the movie “Spotlight,” which was about the Boston Globe’s storied investigative unit. David Simon, one of the panelists, lamented the paucity of such teams in American newspapering today, adding dryly that there was never a better time in U.S. history to be a crooked politician. If you doubt the truth of that observation, think about this: Two-and-a-half years after Marc Stern noticed that odd-looking Del Mar real estate deal, his bureau was closed. If he’d missed that story, or gotten busy with other stories, Duke Cunningham might still be in Congress, selling out his country for money.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics