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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.”
Heil went to work for Cunningham in December 2003 after four years as chief of staff to then-Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). That was preceded by a four-year stint as legislative director for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), another lawmaker who is under Justice Department scrutiny over his dealings with lobbyists.
Heil and Cunningham were not close initially, although that changed quickly, according to Heil. “We didn’t start off as friends,” said Heil in an hour-long interview at McKenna Long & Aldridge’s offices, held in the same room where FBI agents first discussed Cunningham with him last summer. “He was just a regular, down-to-earth guy.”
In quieter moments, he recalled, the two would discuss hunting and fishing, as well their personal lives, including their relationships with their wives.
In the summer of 2004, just months after he had joined the staff, Cunningham confided in Heil that he had been diagnosed with a recurrence of prostate cancer. “I was deeply moved that he would share that with me,” said Heil. “He was a good friend. We talked every day.”
But Justice Department documents describe a difficult, and sometimes tense, relationship, one in which Heil on different occasions attempted, usually without success, to keep Cunningham from violating legal or ethical restrictions.
For instance, in 2003, Cunningham bought a 1999 Suburban truck from Wade for only $10,000. Heil said he became worried about the price, which was thousands of dollars below the market value. According to the Justice Department, when Heil, who was not named in any official document, “raised the matter with the Congressman, Cunningham furiously slammed his hand on his desk, twice, and yelled at the staffer to ‘Stay the f--- out my personal business.’”
Cunningham’s aides then altered the vehicle’s registration to “reflect an $18,000 sales price, rather than the actual $10,000, and asked Cunningham to make up the difference,” the Justice Department stated. “Cunningham did not.”
Several months later, Wade “took a cash-filled envelope to a fundraiser that was being thrown at The Caucus Room restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., where he gave it to a third party with instructions that it was for Cunningham,” DOJ documents report. “Cunningham informed one of his staffers, who ultimately delivered the envelope to him, that it contained [Wade’s] half of $13,000 in repairs” to Cunningham’s boat, the “Duke Stir,” which Wade secretly paid for and gave to Cunningham. Wade acknowledged in Friday’s plea agreement with the Justice Department that he gave $6,500 in cash to Cunningham in June 2004.
For Heil, the incident with the cash-filled envelope was a revelation. Several months later, Heil challenged Cunningham to explain his relationship with Wade, as well the cash payments, the boat, and Wade’s November 2003 purchase of Cunningham’s San Diego-area home for $700,000 more than it was worth.
“The staffer told Cunningham that these transactions eventually were going to become public,” federal prosecutors stated in a recent sentencing recommendation for Cunningham. “Accordingly, he requested that the Congressman either resign or announce that he would not seek re-election.”
According to the Justice Department, Cunningham considered these two options but then decided against them. “Although Cunningham initially entertained this proposal, he eventually decided he would neither resign nor retire at the expiration of his term, prompting the staffer to resign himself,” the Justice Department stated.
“At no time did I suspect of criminal behavior until I found out a defense contractor had purchased his house and then sold it at a $700,000 loss,” Heil told Roll Call on Monday. “I’m not a lawyer. At the time, it was clear this was blatantly unethical. Without knowing the details, I thought it might be criminal.”
Heil was unable to decipher what Cunningham was really thinking about as all this was occurring with Wade and the others implicated in the growing scandal, and he added that he did not know even now, months later. “I don’t know that we’ll ever know,” said Heil. “I wish I knew, I wish I could have helped him.”
Heil quit Cunningham’s office in early March 2005, moving to K Street after 10 years on Capitol Hill. At Mckenna Long & Aldridge, Heil represents such clients as Science Applications International Corp., a big federal contractor, as well as Symonds NA, Inc., a security firm, and Research in Motion Ltd., a Canadian telecom firm.
It is still unclear whether other lawmakers or aides will be ensnared in the Cunningham probe, and the Justice Department investigation has now grown to include Pentagon officials. To Heil, what Cunningham did was so stunning as to defy description, even now.
“I would be shocked if I were to find out someone else in Congress did anything near to this kind of behavior,” said Heil. “Congress is filled with people who have to tackle a lot of tough issues. I don’t think anyone comes to Congress to get rich.”