Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty today to fraud, conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion. Shortly after entering his plea, Cunningham announced that he is immediately resigning his seat, though he had already announced that he would not seek reelection next year.
Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham reads a statement announcing his resignation outside the federal courthouse in San Diego on Monday. (AP)
According to The Associated Press, Cunningham admitted "he took $2.4 million in bribes to steer defense contracts to conspirators." He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 27. FindLaw.com has copies of the charges filed against Cunningham and his plea agreement.
Cunningham's resignation triggers a special election. Under California law, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has 14 days to officially declare the seat vacant. The special general election must be scheduled between 112 and 119 days after Schwarzenegger's original proclamation, with an open primary to be held on the eighth Tuesday before the general-election date. If no candidate secures 50 percent of the vote in the open primary, the top vote-getter from each major party advances to the general election.
Eight Republican candidates were already running to replace Cunningham next year, while 2004 nominee Francine Busby is the lone Democrat running. With the race turning from an open seat to a special election, candidates who had either ruled a run out or not previously considered it may decide to join.
The San Diego-area district is tough sledding for Democrats; President Bush won an 11-point victory there in 2004, outperforming his statewide showing by 21 percent. This will be the third special election in California in the space of a year. Rep. Doris Matsui (D) won her deceased husband's 5th District seat in March. A special election to fill former Rep. Chris Cox's (R) 48th District is set for Dec. 6. Cox resigned from the House when he was nominated this year to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Cunningham's decision to plead guilty comes as two other prominent House Republicans continue to wade through varying levels of scandal of their own. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) is currently under indictment for allegedly violating state campaign finance laws. Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), the chairman of the House Administration Committee, has been subpoenaed by the Justice Department to turn over any documents he possesses relating to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Democrats don't have a clean ethical slate either, a fact Republicans are quick to point out. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) is the target of a federal probe regarding an alleged telecommunications deal in Nigeria he attempted to broker. And former Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.) was recently sentenced to four years in prison for misusing state monies as a state senator.
Those troubles will successfully muddy the water, some Republicans argue, making it difficult for Democrats to attack alleged GOP corruption without exposing significant weaknesses of their own on ethics issue.
Other Republicans, however, are beginning to express concern that while no single corruption case could endanger the majority, the cumulative effect could be disastrous. "Cunningham is a minor factor in all his," said one Republican pollster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss party positioning on this most-sensitive of issues. "His actions can't be blamed on a 'culture of corruption' but instead on personal stupidity. Ney and DeLay are much larger concerns."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) disagreed with that assessment, releasing a statement this afternoon calling Cunningham's plea "the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress." Expect more of the same from other Democratic leaders over the coming days.
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