In documents about former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) released last week by the Justice Department, federal prosecutors noted several incidents going back to 2003 in which one of Cunningham’s senior aides confronted the now-disgraced ex-lawmaker about suspicious personal dealings with defense contractors, including Mitchell Wade, the former CEO of MZM Inc.
Those dealings are at the heart of a $2.4 million bribery scheme that has resulted so far in felony guilty pleas by Wade and Cunningham, with the former Member likely to receive a long spell in prison when he is sentenced Friday. Cunningham pleaded guilty on Nov. 28 to bribery, tax evasion, and mail and wire fraud, and he faces up to 10 years incarceration in a federal prison.
In an interview, David Heil, Cunningham’s former chief of staff and now a lobbyist with the firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, confirmed that he was the staffer referred to in the Justice Department documents. At one point in late 2004, after a showdown with his boss, Heil threatened to quit unless Cunningham himself left Congress — either by resigning or announcing his retirement. That was months before the first media reports appeared that questioned aspects of Cunningham’s lavish lifestyle.
When Cunningham balked at Heil’s ultimatum, Heil quit. His actions, as revealed in the recent Justice Department filings, constitute one of the few ethical bright spots in what has been a tale of corruption with tentacles that reach from the halls of Congress to secret intelligence programs within the Pentagon.
But the choice Heil faced in late 2004 was not an easy one. He didn’t discuss his suspicions about Cunningham with anyone — not even his wife. “I couldn’t talk to anyone about this,” Heil said on Monday during his first interview about the scandal that took down Cunningham.
Heil said he felt personally betrayed by Cunningham’s actions, though he added that he believes that 10 years — the government’s sentencing request — is too long a term in prison for his ex-boss.
“How else do you define when someone looks you in the eye and lies to you on several occasions?” Heil asked. “But then again, he did that to everybody.”
Heil added that Cunningham “made some bad decisions that led him down this path. I do hope the judge has mercy.”
Heil has been forced to hire two defense lawyers to deal with inquiries from the FBI and Justice Department. (Heil would not comment on many aspects of the Cunningham case, including whether he is in any legal jeopardy.) And although he keeps in touch with some of his former Capitol Hill colleagues, Heil described an overwhelming feeling of disenchantment and bitterness among some of Cunningham’s former aides. Several have left politics or sought a future outside of Washington.
“This has cost me, and I’m not alone,” Heil said of the whiff of scandal that has been left on Cunningham’s former aides. In his bio on the McKenna Long & Aldridge Web site, Heil notes only that he “served as Chief of Staff for a Republican congressman from California” without naming Cunningham.
“It’s a social and political consequence [that] I’m still learning to manage,” Heil said. “It’s a part of all Duke’s former staffers. We’re just going to have to live and to cope with it.”