by Seth Hettena
When the FBI recently revealed that it was investigating the nature of any links between President Trump, his associates and the Russian government, I was reminded of another scandal involving disgraced San Diego County Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
The story, which began with a report published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, grew into one of the biggest political scandals in county history. In 2006, a federal judge sentenced Cunningham to 100 months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors to whom he steered lucrative Pentagon contracts.
While there are many differences between the two men — Cunningham, unlike Trump, served his country honorably during the Vietnam War and became a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot — there are similarities where their political careers are concerned.
Like Trump, Cunningham had a loose tongue that often got him in trouble. Like Trump, he mocked, taunted, bullied and insulted his political opponents. And like Trump, Cunningham was drawn into far-fetched conspiracies. Look in the Congressional Record, and you’ll find Cunningham denouncing President Bill Clinton as a traitor and a KGB dupe because of a visit to Moscow as a college-aged man.
At the center of Cunningham’s bribery scandal was a real estate deal. Cunningham sold his home in Del Mar to a defense contractor and campaign contributor named Mitchell Wade, one of the shady “friends” the congressman attracted. Wade paid $1.675 million for the congressman’s home in 2003, an eye-popping figure that attracted attention even in San Diego County’s red-hot housing market.
Wade bought the home without ever having set foot in it, and only later found out that it was in sorry shape, darkened by the bars Cunningham installed over every window and skylight to foil Del Mar’s burglars. Wade put the home up for sale a month later, but it languished for a year before he managed to unload it for a $700,000 loss. To prosecutors, it smelled like bribery. And it was.
President Trump also sold a home for more than it was worth — except the house itself and the sale price were both much, much bigger. The property was a sprawling, oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Florida that Trump sold for $95 million after purchasing it four years earlier for $41 million. At the time, it was the most expensive U.S. home sale ever.
The buyer of the 6-acre property was a Russian fertilizer magnate named Dmitry Rybolovlev. The sale took place in July 2008, a time when the overheated U.S. real estate market was showing signs of distress and the supply of luxury homes exceeded demand.
Rybolovlev overpaid. Five years after the sale, Palm Beach County officials appraised the house at less than $60 million.
To be fair, no one has accused Trump or Rybolovlev of bribery, but the similarities between the sale of Cunningham’s property and Trump’s are striking. Not unlike the defense contractor who bought Cunningham’s Del Mar home, the Russian fertilizer king showed little interest in Trump’s mansion before or after he bought it. He never lived in it and is said to have visited it only once.
The home was plagued by mold, and, amazingly, a lawyer for Rybolovlev’s ex-wife told the Palm Beach Post he found no evidence that the Russian billionaire had hired anyone to inspect the property before he paid Trump a $50 million premium for it. In 2015, Rybolovlev got permission to demolish the 61,744-square-foot home, and is now selling off the land underneath it.
Other coincidences link Rybolovlev and Trump. Reporters have tracked the Russian billionaire’s private plane to cities where Trump was traveling during the 2016 presidential campaign and into his presidency. Both men say they have never met.
It could be that the sale of the Palm Beach mansion is an example of Trump’s ballyhooed deal-making skills. And it is also possible that it was something else: that the purchase of the mansion known as Maison de l’Aimitié (House of Friendship) was a covert form of payment from friends unknown in Russia or elsewhere.
The major difference between the two transactions is that at the time of the sale of the Palm Beach mansion, Trump was not a public official. But now that he occupies the most powerful office in the world, the FBI, Senate and House intelligence committees who are examining the president’s ties to Russia should learn the lessons of the Cunningham scandal and give the enormous premium paid for Trump’s moldering mansion — purchased sight unseen — the close scrutiny it deserves.
Hettena, a former military writer, is a freelance writer based in San Diego.