Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California became a lead example of how lawmakers can abuse their office for financial gain and prompted lasting changes to the congressional appropriations process when he went to prison 15 years ago for taking $2.4 million in bribes that involved a yacht named the "Duke-Stir."
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump gave a full pardon to Cunningham and two other former Republican members of Congress as one of his final acts in office, extending a streak of giving a break to politicians who faced corruption charges.
Also on a list of more than 140 pardons and commuted sentences was former Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona, who was sentenced to two years in prison on 17 charges of fraud, racketeering and public corruption.
A federal appeals court, when it upheld Renzi's conviction in 2014, wrote: “Congressmen may write the law, but they are not above the law.”
Trump also pardoned former Rep. Robert Cannon “Robin” Hayes of North Carolina, the chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, who was sentenced to probation after he pleaded guilty in 2019 to making a false statement during a federal investigation into a conspiracy to bribe the state’s insurance commissioner.
Austin Evers, the executive director of watchdog group American Oversight, said Trump’s announcement “reads less like a list of pardons than a desperate, last-minute argument that political corruption should not be a crime.”
Last month, Trump granted full pardons to former Republican members of Congress who were among his earliest supporters: former Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who was sentenced to 11 months in prison on charges he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for his own enrichment, and former Rep. Chris Collins of New York, who was serving a 26-month sentence for conspiring to commit securities fraud and making false statements to the FBI.
But of those pardoned, it was Cunningham whose actions most altered the course of Congress for taking the bribes in return for promising earmarks to defense contractors, often in the military's "black," or classified, budget.
Earmarks that allowed directed pots of money in annual appropriations bills were at the heart of several political corruption scandals, and Congress banned that practice in 2011.
Lawmakers, who have continued to use appropriations bills to pay for pet projects despite the earmark ban, are now considering bringing back the practice.
Cunningham, who served from 1991 until his resignation and guilty plea in 2005, admitted accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes. That included about $1 million in cash as well as rugs, antiques, furniture, yacht club fees, boat repairs, moving costs and vacation expenses, in exchange for using his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to obtain earmarks on behalf of defense contractors.
The bribes included the profit he received through the sale of his Del Mar, Calif., home to a defense contractor at an inflated price.
While in Washington, Cunningham stayed on a boat dubbed the "Duke-Stir," owned by a defense contractor whom he helped win government contracts. Cunningham covered fees but paid no rent, in violation of House rules.
A House historian at the time said the audacious scheme was the largest dollar amount taken by any member of Congress convicted of bribery. Previous cases, including the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, involved at most thousands of dollars.
Among the evidence prosecutors used was a “bribe menu” written on Cunningham’s office stationery that sketched out for another contractor how much of a bribe he wanted based on the dollar value of earmarks the contractor sought in an appropriations bill.
The scandal had longevity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit used Cunningham as an example in 2015 when it upheld a 75-year-old law that bans active individual federal contractors from making campaign contributions to federal candidates or political parties.
A White House release said Cunningham has tutored other inmates to help them achieve their high school education equivalency certification, and is a combat veteran, an ace fighter pilot, and a member of the Military Order of Purple Hearts who is combat-disabled, volunteers with a local fire department and is active in Bible study.