After careful consideration, beleaguered congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham decided to plead stupidity. In a carefully worded statement last week—sure to go down as a scandal classic—Cunningham admitted he showed “poor judgment” when he let his buddy the defense contractor buy his home for a wildly inflated price.
In the media game, this is known as an “understatement,” roughly akin to saying Michael Jackson used “poor judgment” in acknowledging that he liked to sleep with little boys. Sure he jumped into the sack with that sweet defense contractor, Cunningham admitted, but nothing bad happened, honest.
“First and foremost, I want my constituents to know that I have acted honorably and honestly,” wrote Cunningham with Nixonian sincerity.
In his alternately pleading and pious statement, he didn't deny the specifics of his cozy relationship with Mitchell Wade, founder of MZM Inc. Not only did Wade buy Cunningham's Del Mar Heights home for $700,000 more than it was worth on the open market, but Cunningham also confirmed that he was living on the defense contractor's boat. Although he denied giving Wade any “preferential” treatment, Cunningham acknowledged it looks bad.
“I failed to adequately consider how this transaction might be perceived by those who don't know me,” Cunningham wrote.
Of course, this suggests that people who know Duke would simply shrug and dismiss his “poor judgment” as no big deal, just another example of that wacky Dukester being the Dukester. In other words, people who know him don't doubt for a second that Duke never really thought much about how it would look for a congressman with an influential role on defense spending to accept favors from a defense contractor. That's just the Duke.
With the subtlety of a desperate man caught with his pants around his ankles, Dukie's statement was clearly laying the groundwork for his defense. He emphasized that there was no quid pro quo-he never did his good buddy any favors in exchange for all those perks.
“I would never put the interests of a friend or contractor above the interests of my country,” Cunningham insisted, after reminding everyone—as he always does—that he is an ex-fighter pilot who served in Vietnam.
Like Michael Jackson, the Duke may be found innocent under the law—or maybe not—but there's no escaping the facts of his “poor judgment.” And his statement did little to defuse the perception that he was engaging in a ridiculously inappropriate relationship, a clear conflict of interest.
When the scandal broke, Cunningham initially downplayed his friendship with Wade, suggesting that he might have known, deep down, that the relationship didn't look good. When Marcus Stern of Copley News first asked Cunningham if he and Wade were friends, Cunningham replied, “No more than I am with [Qualcomm founder] Irwin Jacobs or [Titan Corp. founder] Gene Ray or any of the other CEOs.” But now that Wade has been revealed as his own personal sugar daddy, Cunningham acknowledged that “Mr. Wade and I have been friends for many years and continue to be friends today.”
However, it wasn't like they were old high school buddies, with shared memories of drinking brewskis and chasing cheerleaders. “I first met Mr. Wade in connection with his work as a defense contractor,” Cunningham said. Apparently, he never questioned his new best buddy's motives, hinting that only now is Cunningham wondering why all those nice guys over in Saudi Arabia invite him out for weenie roasts every year.
But there is ample evidence that Cunningham still doesn't get it. His statement was full of laughable assertions that would make any rational reader say, “Huh?”
Cunningham says he thought the defense contractor was eager to buy his 3,800-square-foot house in Del Mar Heights before it went on the market in order to use it as headquarters for “highly secure communications equipment” because it was situated close to the Miramar Marine Corps air base. But that suggests MZM never bothered to compare real-estate prices in Del Mar to prices in Mira Mesa, which is a lot closer to Miramar. (It also implies that MZM was willing to flaunt zoning laws by basing offices in a residential neighborhood.)
If Wade chooses to play along and deny that he gave his congressman pal a sweetheart deal, he will also have to invoke the stupidity defense in order to explain why he is the only person in recent memory to lose money on Del Mar real estate. Or he will have to argue that the Duke-man ripped him off.
“Again I acknowledge that I showed poor judgment in not listing the house publicly for sale,” Cunningham wrote. “I should have given more thought to the perception that might create.” Damn perception.
But it's not like there's anything new in Cunningham's relationship with the defense industry. He has always been viewed as a lackey of the military establishment, as well as something of a dim bulb. A few years ago, when a reporter confronted him about another cozy relationship with a defense contractor, Cunningham refused to answer and snapped, “I'm on the side of angels here.”
In this case, federal prosecutors may disagree. If it can be shown that Cunningham gave his buddy even the slightest special treatment, straight arrow Duke will look like nothing more than another cheap-whore politician trading favors. And even his blindly loyal North County constituents may find it hard to believe Duke didn't know it was wrong.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.