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March 4, 2006
Eight For The Duke

A federal judge in San Diego gave Randy "Duke" Cunningham eight years in prison for bribery, tax evasion, and mail and wire fraud for his corruption as a Republican Congressman and influential member of House committees on defense. Cunningham pleaded guilty and hoped to avoid the ten-year maximum allowed under his plea deal:

U.S. District Judge Larry Allan Burns in San Diego spared the disgraced Republican lawmaker the 10-year maximum sentence sought by prosecutors, the maximum available under a court-approved plea agreement, but ordered the longest term ever given to a congressman.

Cunningham, who was taken into custody immediately, also was ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution. ...

In November, Cunningham admitted to federal charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and income-tax evasion, acknowledging he underreported his income in 2004. He resigned from Congress after his guilty plea, and in a tearful statement to reporters at the time, said he planned to make amends for his actions, saying he had known "great joy and great sorrow" in his life, and that he now knows "great shame."

Federal prosecutors said Cunningham "demanded and received" bribes from defense contractor Mitchell Wade, founder of MZM Inc., in exchange for official favors. They said Wade also let Cunningham live rent-free on his yacht, the Duke Stir, at the Capital Yacht Club, and that MZM Inc. donated generously to Cunningham's campaigns.

Wade isn't off the hook yet, either. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery and faces a possible 11-year sentence.

This scandal painted the GOP into a tight corner, along with the Tom DeLay indictment and lesser controversies, and will undoubtedly be an issue in the midterm elections. Republicans will not have much of a response, other than to say that Cunningham's actions were his own, and he's paying for them now after having been caught. The impulse will be to point at William Jefferson, the New Orleans Democrat who not only has been the subject of a federal corruption investigation but also misappropriated emergency-relief resources in the middle of Hurricane Katrina to pack up his belongings and move them out of the city. The Democrats will counter with Jack Abramoff, the Republicans will note the connections between Abramoff and Harry Reid ... and so on.

The truth is that power corrupts in the absence of well-managed rules and regulations, and due to the separation of powers, the responsibility for watching Congress falls mostly to Congress itself. This body has done a poor job over the last several decades in fulfilling those responsibilities. The Republicans for the past decade have kneecapped the committees on ethics, at least in part because the Democrats in charge before that abused the ethics committees as partisan attack vehicles. Under these conditions, corruption like that exemplified by the Duke flourishes, and it seems that neither party wants to put aside momentary partisan advantage to stop it.

Maybe voters should insist on making that the issue of the midterm elections.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 4, 2006 9:38 AM

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