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Under Their Noses: Why Did the Washington Press Let the Duke-Stir Slide?

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Update: via Hotline on Call via San Diego Union Tribune: "Digging deeper into Duke Cunningham's relationship with 'co-conspirator No. 1,' a.k.a. lobbyist Brent Wilkes...according to the U-T, Wilkes also 'ran a hospitality suite, with several bedrooms, in' DC -- 'first in the Watergate Hotel and then' in a Capitol Hill hotel." Unfolding...


The culture of corruption has a new poster boy, Randy “Duke” Cunningham. So prepare for a tidal wave of breathless coverage, laying out all the juicy details of his brazen greed.

The media are shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that defense contractors had bribed the former Top Gun war hero with what Mike Kinsley dubbed “a comic cornucopia of baubles” -- including a luxury home, a fancy car, a yacht, as well as high-end furniture, rugs, jewelry and cash. Expect to learn as much about his sleigh-style bed, his two 19th century French commodes, and $9,200 Laser Shot shooting simulators as we did about Dennis Kozlowski’s $6,000 shower curtain and $2 million Sardinia birthday bash for his wife.

And it’s not like there isn’t satiric hay to be made with a Cunningham defender explaining to the Washington Post that while Cunningham indeed drove a Rolls-Royce it was “not in great shape”. Or with Cunningham’s claim, when the shady house deal that led to his downfall first surfaced: “I don’t cheat. If a contractor buys me lunch and we meet a second time, I buy the lunch.” (Wonder if the same rule applied when a contractor bought Duke a house, a car, a yacht, and a houseful of antiques…was the next round of French commodes on him?)

But we can’t let this collective carcass picking -- as voyeuristically titillating as it may be -- distract us from the two vital issues this story raises: the corrupting role that money continues to play in our politics, and the overly cozy relationship between those in power and those in the media whose job it is to cover them.

I mean, where was the Washington press corps on this story?

Here you have a Congressman making $158,000 a year, living (and partying with lobbyists) on a yacht docked at the Capital Yacht Club and driving a Rolls-Royce -- and not a single Washington journalist thought this worth looking into? If one of them had followed the spoils, it would have quickly led to a defense contractor buying the yacht, christened the “Duke-Stir”, while at the same time receiving massive government contracts authorized by the defense appropriations subcommittee Cunningham sat on.

But, instead, the Beltway Gang turned a blind-eye -- so jaded and accepting of how the game is played in Washington that the corruption didn’t even register.

It wasn’t until some local reporters began looking into the questionable real estate transaction back in San Diego -- in which the same defense contractor who owned the yacht Cunningham was living on overpaid for the Congressman’s house then turned around and resold it at a $700,000 loss -- that the wheels started to come off the Duke-ster’s gravy train.

In less than six months, Cunningham went from saying “I feel very confident that I haven’t done anything wrong” on the house sale to pleading guilty to pocketing at least $2.4 million in bribes.

It just goes to show what an aggressive press can accomplish -- and how much we miss having one on the national level.

If the press were doing its job, we’d have a run of stories showing how we’ve become a banana republic -- a place where the surest way to guarantee a profitable investment is to buy a politician.

The Cunningham case is a textbook example of how the pay-to-play system works -- and a powerful advertisement for the value of graft (“It really, really works!”).

Let’s take a look at how Mitch Wade of MZM Inc. (aka Cunningham “co-conspirator No. 2”) gamed the system. Before launching MZM in 1993, Wade was a program manager at the Pentagon (so he saw how things worked). But for 8 years his company struggled to get contracts and, as recently as 2001, still had not made a dime.

Then Wade started to fill Cunningham’s pockets -- and his homes. One hundred grand later, the company was placed on a list of approved government providers and, as reported by the LA Times, got its first contract -- to supply office furniture and computers for Vice President Dick Cheney. The MZM bribes kept coming Cunningham’s way and the company kept cashing in big time -- landing a massive five-year $250 million blanket contract. This year, the firm found itself among Washington Technology magazine’s “Top 100 Federal Prime Contractors”. Talk about your return on investment.

Forget the who, what, where, when, and why of Cunningham, we all need to learn a lot more about MZM and ADCS (aka co-conspirator No. 1), the other Potomac alchemist who turned gifts to Cunningham into golden defense contracts. Cunningham’s bounty may be the sizzle, but these as yet-unindicted firms are the steak.

Just as there is no way that Cunningham is the only bribee (although he may be the only one shameless enough to deposit bribe checks directly into his personal bank accounts), there is no way that MZM and ADCS are the only defense contractors bribing their way to massive profits.

Both for the health of our democracy and for our national security, it’s vitally important that these companies get called on the carpet. Don’t forget, these crooks are defense contractors -- and doesn’t it make you wonder where else they are breaking the rules and cutting corners?

For instance, MZM was granted a $5 million contract to be the sole provider of interpreters in Iraq. That’s troubling in any language.

The ongoing war in Iraq and the war on terror guarantee that tens of billions of dollars in government contracts will be handed out to defense contractors. We need independent legislators who will keep them in check, not bought-and-paid-for stooges eager to do their bidding -- and a vigilant press corps determined to act as watchdogs for the public good.