A Shroud of Corruption
On March 3, 2006, Randall "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison. Cunningham, who in March 2005 resigned in disgrace from Congress, had admitted taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from information-technology contractors in exchange for helping them secure hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon and the intelligence community.
The case received enormous publicity. A Navy flying ace during the Vietnam War, Cunningham had demanded and received expensive gifts, a yacht, a Rolls-Royce, the services of prostitutes and even had one of the contractors foot
The bill for his daughter's graduation party, according to charges filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California. Cunningham had taken payoffs on a scale that is unprecedented in the history of Congress. "In the sheer dollar amount, he is the most corrupt [in the history of Congress]," Deputy House Historian Fred W. Beuttler told CBS News at the time of his sentencing.
One year later, the case has seemingly run its course. Cunningham is in prison. And, of the two contractors the government says bought Cunningham's influence, one, Mitchell J. Wade, chief executive officer of Washington, D.C., high-tech company MZM, pleaded guilty in February 2006 to conspiring to bribe Cunningham, among other charges; the other, Brent Roger Wilkes, president of ADCS, a Poway, Calif., data conversion and information management company, was indicted on Feb. 13, 2007, for bribing Cunningham. Wilkes issued a statement through his lawyer saying he is innocent of the charge.
But in recent months, it has become clear that the information-technology scandal that rocked Washington may be more far-reaching than had been initially recognized. The names of other members of Congress, along with a senior Defense Department official, have surfaced in relation to the case, at the heart of which are government charges that Cunningham and co-conspirators caused hundreds of millions of dollars in defense and intelligence I.T. contracts — a number of them involving national security — to be awarded to companies that in many instances, the government claims, weren't the best qualified for the job.
What is perhaps most alarming about this story, however, is the window it provides into the kind of corruption that can develop in an environment where projects are often funded through "black budgets"; the number of vendor choices is shrinking; accountability is minimal or nonexistent; and buying decisions can be driven by cronyism, massive campaign contributions — some of them illegal — influence peddling and pork barrel politics.
"I think that the Cunningham example is unique because of how deeply entrenched MZM was with a member of Congress," says Scott Amey, general counsel of the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight (POGO), "but overall it does highlight the cozy relationship that many contractors have with members of Congress, senior government officials and the executive branch."
"This case raises a lot of issues about the conduct of a lot of people who hold high office," adds Scott Lilly, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think tank, and a longtime congressional staffer.
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