|Randy "Duke" Cunningham|
The most corrupt Congressman in modern American history will soon be a free man. On June 4, former San Diego Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who took at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, then used his influence on The Hill to steer tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to these companies, will complete his 100-month sentence, according to the U-T San Diego.
Cunningham, now 71, tearfully pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion and was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison. I covered Cunningham's epic fall for Newsweek, and in my years covering politics this is easily the most egregious example I've seen of a politician succumbing to the temptation to capitalize on his position.
Cunningham, a decorated Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, entered prison a broken and virtually friendless man after taking bribes from San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes and others. But who was arguably his biggest defender in Washington? None other than Darrell Issa, current chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Issa, the fiery Republican who's been sermonizing almost daily about the Obama administration's alleged abuse of power, sang a much different tune during the Cunningham scandal. Even after it became painfully obvious to most of the world that Cunningham was guilty as sin, Issa insisted that Duke was innocent.
In a 2005 story in the North County Times newspaper (now part of the U-T San Diego), Issa said Cunningham was incapable of doing anything dishonest. "Duke has one thing he prides himself on more than anything and that is his integrity," Issa told the newspaper. "His word is his bond."
After Cunningham pleaded guilty, Issa told the The Copley News Service, "We wanted desperately to hear Duke explain his conduct in a way that made sense to us, but increasingly feared that would not happen." I'm still waiting to hear Issa tell us all how Duke could have explained his actions in a way that would have "made sense" to Issa, or anyone.
As for Wilkes, the defense contrator who was convicted of 13 felonies for bribing Cunningham, he was also a big supporter of Issa's. In 2002, Wilkes' firm ADSC Inc., contributed $10,000 to Issa, and in 2004 Wilkes' firm contributed $5,000 to Issa.
It doesn't stop there. Issa even went after the woman who put Duke behind bars - federal prosecutor Carol Lam - with a false report accusing her of "lax" immigration enforcement. Lam, one of nine federal prosecutors ousted by the Bush administration on questionable and some say purely political grounds, was an obvious target of retaliation by Issa and others after she prosecuted Cunningham and Wilkes.
But Issa's zealous pursuit of Lam, and his support of Duke, weren't surprising. He routinely gives Republicans, even disgraced ones, the benefit of the doubt, while insisting - often before he has all the facts - that Democrats like Lam are guilty.
Which brings us back to Issa's current efforts as chair of the oversight committee. Issa has actually been trying unsuccessfully for years to bring down President Obama. In 2010 he told radio host Rush Limbaugh that Obama was “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Issa later recanted the statement, but the fact that he said it is interesting given the fact that Issa is such a staunch defender of the man who actually is the most corrupt politician in modern times.
A year ago in The Daily Beast I posed the question: Is Darrell Issa a proud government watchdog, or a dangerous pit bull? It remains a fair and important question. While virtually all Washington lawmakers are partisan, Issa is partisanship on steroids.
Are there legitimate concerns about government overreach by the Obama administration? Yes. Should they be investigated? Yes. But is Issa the right man to be heading this investigation, given the abundance of scandals in his personal and political lives and his transparently selective outrage and prosecution?