Aug. 11 2010 10:26 AM

Checking in with Duke Cunningham halfway through his federal prison sentence

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Randall "Duke" Cunningham will be free again in four years.

Three students in a federal prison in Tucson, Ariz., will take the test to earn their Graduate Equivalency Degree on Aug. 15. If they pass, they will bring former Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham that much closer to the redemption he said he would seek in prison when he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax-evasion charges four-and-a-half-years ago.

“The reward is seeing their faces at graduation,” Cunningham explains in a letter to CityBeat.

Cunningham recently passed the halfway point in his 100-month (eight years and four months) sentence. Along with roughly 120 other inmates, he's serving his time at the minimum-security satellite camp at the United States Penitentiary in Tucson, where there are few guards and no perimeter fence.

In July, CityBeat mailed a letter to Cunningham, asking how he's holding up in prison and what he has been doing to fill his time. We also asked whether he has an opinion on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that could impact the criminal cases of some of the businessmen who were accused of conducting quid-pro-quo deals with Cunningham in exchange for defense contracts.

Cunningham's response arrived two weeks later, a three-page missive that explains in slanting blue ink that he has returned to education.

“During the morning and afternoon I teach GED students and 3 nights/wk teach adult education,” he writes. “It was a good fit, since I have taught in college and high school.”

Long before he was the U.S. representative for California's 50th Congressional district, Cunningham earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education. In his letter, he says he's still proud that one of the swimmers he coached in high school, John Kinsella, won a silver medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Interacting with inmates seems to have a similarly profound effect on Cunningham.

“[Too] many students have severe learning disabilities from either drugs or genetic[s],” he writes. “During the past 4 years only one of my students was unable to graduate—I taught him life skills, using a calculator to add, subtract, [multiply and divide]. This way he could at least balance a check book.”

Like many minimum-security camps, Cunningham's facility is adjacent to a high-security facility, which has allowed him to witness firsthand what he describes as a flawed justice system.

“The USA has more prisoners than any other nation, including Russia & China,” he writes. “The US attorneys win 98% of their cases and if you do not plead in which 80-90% is not true they threaten your wife children etc with prison time.”

Cunningham's numbers are slightly off. The U.S. Department of Justice's 2009 statistics show that federal prosecutors won 94.1 percent of cases. In 96 percent of those convictions, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial. The difference doesn't affect Cunningham's point.

“Maybe that's why God put me here to bring about much needed prison reform,” he writes. “Millions of prisoners but 4x that in families are harmed.”

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the criminal “honest services” fraud laws were unconstitutionally vague; this ruling may assist the appeals of Cunningham's alleged collaborators, such as defense contractor and poker champ Brent Wilkes. CityBeat asked Cunningham for his reaction.

“The Supreme Court issue will have to wait & see,” he writes. “A diesel mechanic friend used to tell me, ‘Let ER run and we will see.'” Cunningham was also the Navy's only flying ace of the Vietnam war, and he closes his letter with a line familiar to fighter pilots, a reminder to watch your butt.

“Check six & God bless, Randy ‘Duke' Cunningham.”

Write to davem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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