Republican apologists want voters to believe that criminals such as Former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham are aberrations in their ranks. Certainly, most of the Republican members of Congress are honest and hardworking public servants. But, the simple reality is that it wasn't until the ascension of George Bush, Tom Delay and Bill Frist that the Republican circus of corruption completely took over Washington.
Duke Cunningham appeared to be nothing more than a cartoon Republican loudmouth. He was clearly more interested in representing defense contractors than his less well heeled constituents, but early in his career it appears that the extent of his pay-for-play activity was limited to the kind of services that could be purchased via legal campaign contributions and gray area perks such as private jet air travel and "campaign trips" to golf friendly locations.
Starting in 1994 when Republicans swept into control of Congress vowing to clean things up and in a process accelerated when George Bush stole into office in 2000, Republicans like Cunningham became far bolder in both changing the rules of the game and pushing the envelop of legality. By 2000, the appear to have concluded that if the Presidency itself could be stolen by a Republican, what sort of behavior was out of bounds?
The Washington Post comments on Cunningham's descent into criminal activity in the context of the uncontrolled and, to constituents and watchdog organizations, anonymous practice of "earmarking" combined with the dramatic growth of secret defense spending driven by the Bush Administrations decision to turn the "war on terror" into a corporate welfare system.
"Earmarks are provisions inserted by lawmakers to fund pet projects, and Mr. Cunningham used them to reward the contractors who were paying him off. They are the crab grass of appropriations -- a long-standing problem that has gotten out of control in recent years. A 2003 study by the Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee found that since the GOP takeover of the House in 1994, "earmarking in the Defense Appropriations bill has grown so rapidly that it now contains nearly as much in earmarked funds as the other twelve bills combined. While earmarks in the Transportation Bill have more than doubled, earmarks in the Defense bill have more than tripled."
Earmarks have evolved to be treated as a matter of entitlement on the part of individual members, who feel authorized to charge on the national credit card without having to do much to justify their purchases. Nor is there much incentive for the "cardinals" -- the subcommittee chairmen who are supposed to oversee individual spending bills -- to do their jobs; with term limits restricting their stints at the helm of a particular subcommittee, they have every interest in the continued happiness of the members with a say in their future chairmanships. In Mr. Cunningham's case, it's fair to ask: Where was the oversight from Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who headed the defense subcommittee until January?"
Of course another reason Congressman Lewis might have been willing to look the other way as Cunningham diligently paid off his benefactors could have been the $22,000 in contributions he received in the last five years from Brent Wilkes, a.k.a. co-conspirator #2 in the Cunningham indictment.
TPM Cafe has a detailed list of the Republican politicians and campaigns to which Mr. Wilkes so generously contributed. Beside, Cunningham and Lewis, Duke's San Diego pal, Congressman Duncan Hunter (CA-52 ) got big money from Wilkes to insure that business was directed to his companies.
As USA Today describes, the Wilkes-Lewis-Hunter connection was good for all three men.
"Since 1994, Wilkes and ADCS gave $40,700 in campaign contributions to Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego Republican who now chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter has acknowledged that he joined with Cunningham in 1999 to contact Pentagon officials who reversed a decision and gave ADCS one of its first big contracts, for nearly $10 million. Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, said the congressman was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Another California Republican, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, led panels that ordered the Pentagon to continue programs that aided ADCS when Pentagon officials wanted to cut them. Lewis got $71,253 from Wilkes and his employees in donations since 1993. Wilkes gave Lewis donations and met him at various events, Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said, but "he never talked with him about a defense project."
Before becoming the Appropriations chairman this year, Lewis led the subcommittee that oversees defense spending. In the late 1990s, that panel directed the Pentagon to continue converting paper documents to computer records, the work that ADCS does. Pentagon officials had tried to end the program's funding.
The 1999 defense budget, for example, directed $45 million be spent on document conversion. Wilkes and his employees gave Lewis $7,000 in campaign contributions the day after his subcommittee's first hearing on the bill.
After the Pentagon declined to give ADCS a contract, it awarded the company a $9.8 million deal in mid-1999 after "inquiries from two members of Congress," a Defense investigation found. Hunter and Cunningham have said they asked Pentagon officials about the program.
The money went to ADCS instead of projects for the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, Air Force bases, and a parts center in Oklahoma, according to the report by the Pentagon inspector general, prompted by a request from a Defense official."