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.
This week, a federal judge ordered Cunningham briber Brent “The Enigma” Wilkes to go to jail, but once again Wilkes remains a free man while he appeals his case.
At this point, it’s a pretty safe bet that Randy “Duke” Cunningham, sentenced to more than eight years in prison, will be released from prison later this year to begin his new life in a cabin in the Ozarks before Wilkes really has to make sure he never, ever drops the soap in the prison shower.
Judge Larry Burns sentenced Wilkes to 12 years in prison back in February 2008. He served a few months and then the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals freed him on bail so he go off and play poker and steal from his employee pension funds to pay his living expenses.
Enough is enough, prosecutors said. But for those who now how to manipulate it, the justice system serves to delay and mitigate punishment rather than deal it out.
So it’s become a sad, familiar pattern for Brent-o:
He gamed the system as a defense contractor sucking on the taxpayer’s teat and flying around in private jets with the help of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a congressman he corrupted with hookers, lavish vacations, and Hawaii scuba trips.
Today, a team of court-appointed (read: taxpayer funded) team of attorneys are delaying his day of reckoning, essentially buying Wilkes freedom with money lifted from the pockets of his victims.
It’s really just another form of welfare, but Wilkes is the worst kind of welfare bitch: a man who espoused a Republican ideology that sneered at big government and “socialism” and wrapped itself red, white and blue fantasies of a country that no longer exists, if it ever did, where the playing field was level, the rules were fair and hard work and determination won the day.
In my last post on Cunningham briber Brent Wilkes, I noted that he has been playing poker and farting around while his team of court-appointed attorneys fights to keep him from serving a 12-year sentence for plying Duke with hookers, lavish trips to Hawaii in exchange for defense contracts.
In court papers filed ahead of a hearing granted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, prosecutors say Wilkes has been doing more than that: Wilkes has been committing crimes by stealing more than $100,000 from the pension fund of his now defunct company to pay his living expenses.
Since Wilkes’s release from custody on January 5, 2009, Wilkes has engaged in additional fraudulent conduct: just as he once raided his children’s college funds to obtain operating cash, he has unabashedly raided the Wilkes’s Corporation’s employee benefit plan to obtain spending money for himself – while failing to reimburse the public for his taxpayer-funded attorneys.
Update: After a day-long hearing, Judge Larry Burns decided that Wilkes has to go to jail on Friday unless the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals saves his ass again. (U-T San Diego)
Defense contractor Brent “the Enigma” Wilkes was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to 12 years in prison for bribing former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham with hookers, lavish vacations and the like, but his court-appointed lawyers have done a phenomenal job of keeping the guy out of prison so he can play poker and fart around.
He’s due for a hearing in a few days and the government calls his bluff in this footnote to a motion:
The government tips its hat to defense counsel who have adopted clever stratagems designed to prolong Wilkes’ day of reckoning almost five years since his 2007 conviction. Nevertheless, this latest attempt to prolong and confuse what should be a rather simple conclusion to this lengthy end-game should not be countenanced by this Court. Enough is enough.
Yes it’s true: Randy “Duke” Cunningham has written another sad, revealing jailhouse letter to the judge who sentenced him to 100 months in federal prison for low behavior in high office.
The Vietnam war hero and disgraced ex-Congressman, who is now 70, writes that he’s set to leave prison as his sentence comes to an end later this year. He says he plans to live in a cabin near Greer’s Lake in the Ozarks and write books. He will be “away from the (San Diego) Union-Tribune,” the newspaper that exposed his corruption in 2005, and there won’t be many people around to bother him, “but they do have a lot of black bears, cougars, and history of rabies.”
In his letter, Cunningham is at turns whining, boastful and self-pitying as he asks Judge Burns to restore his second amendment rights. “I flew aircraft that could disintegrate your building with a half-second burst and now can’t carry a .22-cal,” he writes.
The Duke says he needs a gun “to earn a little money so he can eat.” He’s poor now and homeless — thanks to the government, he writes. “Don’t guess we can do to (sic) much for our veterans after all,” Cunningham whines.
He says he will use the gun for hunting and competition and then adds in a handwritten postscript, “I will also hunt to supliment (sic) my food.”
To this mess of a letter, this mess of a man, Judge Burns’ response is understated elegance. Burns says he has no authority to restore Duke’s gun rights; that authority with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms:
You should be aware, however, that every year since 1992, Congress has refused to provide funding to the ATF to review applications from the federal firearm ban. And the United States Supreme Court has ruled that inaction by the ATF does not amount to “denial” of the application within the meaning of section 925(c) United States v. Bean 537 US 71, 75 (2002). So unless Congress changes course and decides to fund ATF’s review of applications for relief, it appears you are stuck.
Randy "Duke" Cunningham May 16 letter to judge// < ![CDATA[
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The judge’s response:
Judge Larry Burns Response to Randy "Duke" Cunningham