Some Kind of Hero
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In their new book, The Wrong Stuff, the Pulitzer Prize–winning team of Copley reporters who broke the story of Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s greed and corruption chronicle the former congressman’s downfall and the road to prison
THE STORY OF HOW the press brought down former U.S. Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham begins with a trip—two, actually—the Republican congressman made to Saudi Arabia in 2004. Marcus Stern, an editor at Copley News Service in Washington, D.C., was perusing a database showing all foreign trips congressional members had taken but hadn’t paid for themselves. Cunningham’s trips to Saudi Arabia gave Stern pause.
“I was highly skeptical of them, because of my experience with Duke,” says Stern. “He wasn’t overly concerned with relations between the U.S. and the Saudis.” He looked up the man who had sponsored the trip sand saw it was a Saudi who had become a naturalized citizen and lived in Rancho Santa Fe. As the afternoon wore on, Stern couldn’t figure out a reason for the trips. He was about to give up but decided on a tactic he describes as “an instinct thing, the desperate, irrational act of a frustrated reporter” in which he looks to see if a public figure is living above his means.
Stern checked to see if Cunningham had recently upgraded his living accommodations. “There were signs, from his financial disclosure forms, that he was taking in money. In November 2003, he sold his Del Mar Heights home for $1.67 million. In December, he purchased a $2.5 million house in Rancho Santa Fe, which was a pretty substantial upgrade from what he had.”
Although that information didn’t get Stern the answer to his question about the Saudi trips, his inquiry opened a fat new can of worms.
Cunningham had sold his old Del Mar house to Mitchell Wade, the owner of MZM Inc., a Nevada-based company whose corporate Web site boasted of how, in the last two years, it had become one of the hottest defense contractors in the nation. Wade soon put Cunningham’s house back on the market, where it languished for almost a year before it sold for $700,000, a loss of $970,000. With that discovery, Stern started down a road that led to the unraveling of the most egregious congressional corruption scandal in U.S. history. Stern took with him other reporters, including Jerry Kammer at Copley News Service, Dean Calbreath at The San Diego Union-Tribune and George Condon, Copley’s D.C. bureau chief.
When it became clear something was amiss, Condon says, Stern wanted to follow the story but didn’t have much time—he was also supervising a team of 11 reporters in D.C. “But we really wanted to pursue it,” says Condon. “It was one of those rare stories where everything was on the record and neither side disputed a single fact or conclusion, which made it so devastating.”
Several weeks later, Stern got Cunningham on the phone between congressional hearings. He had about 12 minutes to confront the congressman and offer him a chance to explain. “I had to establish on the phone that he had done something for Mitch Wade in his official capacity as congressman. And Cunningham admitted he helped Wade get contracts. It was dumb, but he had been so steeped in this for so long, he didn’t realize how damaging it was,” says Stern. “I asked him, ‘You don’t think anything is wrong with this, but what about skeptics out there who think it looks funny that a contractor getting millions of dollars in government contracts buys your house and takes a loss on the house?’ He said, ‘Well, people know I’m a good guy. I’ve never smoked marijuana or cheated on my wife.’ ”
Cunningham then told Stern that all he had done was “write letters of support.” That, says George Condon, was the moment they had been looking for. “It was a voluntary admission,” says Condon. “It was the quid pro quo moment.”