Shivering on a dark street in Islamabad, Pakistan, Marcus Stern tells his story via a satellite phone with a patchy connection. The 52-year-old journalist is the man of the moment here in San Diego, despite being half a world away.
In truth, Stern's moment came seven months ago, when his article published in the Union-Tribune revealed that Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor, had paid an inflated price for a Del Mar home belonging to Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The story noted a corresponding surge in multimillion-dollar government contracts won by Wade's company, MZM Inc., thanks in part to the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee of which Cunningham was a member.
A bombshell from the outset, Stern's story cast an unflattering spotlight on Cunningham, a heretofore outspoken conservative Republican politician with a chest full of war medals and eight terms under his belt as the representative for California's 50th Congressional district.
But details of the crooked real-estate deal quickly emerged, as did stories of proffered boats and shady campaign contributions that in turn spawned a federal investigation, a flurry of subpoenas and raids at the homes and offices of Cunningham and Wade. Smelling fresh blood, Republican challengers announced their candidacy for Duke's seat, up for election in 2006, while Cunningham-continuing to proclaim his innocence-announced he would retire.
It would take months for Cunningham's demise to fully play itself out, but the notion that Stern had dealt the Duke a fatal blow was never really in doubt. Today the details of Cunningham's infamous real-estate transaction and a litany of other related transgressions are memorialized in a plea agreement signed by the congressman. Shortly after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion, Cunningham resigned in disgrace from his position in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Which brings us back to Stern, freezing his butt off last week in Islamabad, where his job as a Washington, D.C.-based editor with the Copley News Service has taken him on an unrelated assignment. Stern missed the congressman's tearful mea culpa outside the federal courthouse last Monday and hasn't yet had the opportunity to review the plea agreement or any related news articles.
“I was literally boarding a plane at Heathrow in London for Islamabad when Cunningham was in [court],” Stern told CityBeat. But missing the climax of his efforts doesn't seem to bother him. Instead, Stern said he's more interested in learning the answer to the question that originally sparked his curiosity about Cunningham.
“I'm still trying to figure out why he went to Saudi Arabia,” the journalist said.
Stern said Cunningham's two trips to the Saudi Kingdom in 2004 came to his attention after a watchdog group published a list of members of Congress who had taken trips paid for by special interests. Cunningham's junkets-worth more than $10,000 each-were funded by Ziyad Abduljawad, chairman of a San Diego-based real-estate company.
But it wasn't Cunningham's travels so much as his well publicized explanations for them-to “promote discourse and better relations” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia-that sparked Stern's curiosity.
A third-generation journalist, curiosity might be in Stern's blood. Both his grandfather and father worked for the Washington Post-the latter as national news editor-and Stern took up the family trade shortly after his father died, starting at the bottom as a reporter for the now-defunct San Pedro News-Pilot, formerly the smallest paper in the Copley chain, which includes the Union-Tribune. After a few years there, he landed a job at a Washington, D.C., news wire before being hired by the Copley News Service.
Over the years, he's covered immigration and California politicians and reported from battlefields in Afghanistan, Haiti and Iraq. But it was ultimately his previous studies of human behavior that would lead him to the story that would end with Cunningham's ruin.
“Before I went into journalism, I worked in psychiatry and I learned there not to listen to what people say but to look at what they do,” he said. “The same is true with politicians. I've learned to pay little attention to what the say but watch very closely what they do.”
In the case of Cunningham, Stern remembers an incident he witnessed in 1996 between Duke and Congressman Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts, embroiled at the time in his own scandal involving a former male companion who had been caught running a prostitution ring from the congressman's basement. The exchange happened at a meeting on immigration during which Republicans were maneuvering to prevent Democrats from commenting on a related bill. Frank objected to being steamrolled.
“When Barney started to make his plea, Cunningham cut him off and said, ‘Well, would you like to talk about prostitutes and basements,'” Stern remembered. “The room just fell silent.”
Cunningham's comment, one among a litany of others just like it over the years, left Stern with an indelible impression that he says never squared with the congressman's stated motive for visiting Saudi Arabia.
“It was not to improve relations, I promise you,” Stern said. “He's not a peacemaker; he's a bully.”
With that red flag on Cunningham's travels, Stern, in May, filled a few idle hours at his desk by performing routine “lifestyle audits” of members of the California Congressional delegation. That's when he stumbled upon the sale of Cunningham's home.
“I basically kicked over this one last stone, which was looking to see if he had upgraded his living accommodations,” Stern said. What he found was that Cunningham had purchased a new home in the exclusive neighborhood of Rancho Santa Fe for $2.55 million.
“That seemed like a substantial upgrade to me, so I looked at how he did that,” Stern said. Using a variety of public records, he traced the details surrounding the sale of Cunningham's old home in Del Mar.
“When I looked to see who bought it, I saw it was something called 1523 New Hampshire Avenue Inc.,” he said. Recognizing the company's name as possibly linked to a Washington, D.C., address, Stern did a quick search and found that it was the same location as the D.C. headquarters of Wade's company, MZM Inc.
“All of a sudden I got very interested,” he said. “From the time I started looking at the house until the time I understood what was going on took about 15 minutes. I think that they thought they were covering it up, but they covered it up with Plexiglas.”
For his part, Stern isn't celebrating Cunningham's demise, which he called “a tragedy for Cunningham, but also a tragedy for our democracy and a tragedy for our society.” Instead, he said, he's privileged and gratified to have played a role and hopes his work will make a difference for the better. “Rather than looking at the tragedy of this one man, I think we need to be looking at the members of Congress who are still there and the years that lie ahead,” he said.
With the U.S. Attorney's investigation continuing, there's little doubt that other members of Congress will be under scrutiny, and Stern, nearly numb in Islamabad, is anxious to return home and continue digging.