Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) will soon relinquish many of his properties and his freedom after pleading guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy, but he will keep his government pension and could retain the privileges enjoyed by other former members of Congress.
Cunningham has served in the House 17 years, and his right to his federal pension will not be affected by his crimes, according to a senior House aide familiar with the rules. He will also receive benefits accrued during his service in the U.S. Navy, in which he served from 1966 to 1987.
Ordinarily, upon leaving Congress, former House members, like former senators, get lifetime floor privileges, access to the gym and a parking space.
“The Speaker’s office has yet to receive his letter of resignation,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), but he added that the office expects the letter soon. “We are looking at this matter very seriously,” he said.
Cunningham’s access to the usual privileges has not been discussed, Bonjean said.
The Federal Elections Commission allowed Cunningham to use campaign funds to pay legal fees, according to a source close to the congressman. It was not clear how much was in Cunningham’s war chest before the investigation. Cunningham had $627,388 on hand as of Sept. 30, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Cunningham’s congressional office will continue to function under the supervision of the clerk of the House until a new member has been elected for California’s 50th District, according to Harmony Allen, Cunningham’s chief of staff, who released a statement yesterday expressing the staff members’ sorrow for their former boss and his family.
“The office will not comment any further on [Monday’s] proceedings other than to say that we are praying for Duke in these exceedingly difficult times,” Allen said. “The office is working closely with the clerk of the House to ensure that the needs of the constituents of the 50th District of California are met throughout this transition.”
A source familiar with the situation in Cunningham’s office, which will become the office of the 50th District of California once the formal resignation process has concluded, said that while most staff members are not “rushing out the door,” they are looking for positions elsewhere in preparation for the changeover to a new member.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has 14 days from Cunningham’s official resignation to set the date for the special election.
Cunningham, a member of the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense and Intelligence subcommittees, announced Monday that he will resign from Congress after he pleaded guilty in a California district court to charges of tax evasion and conspiracy. He will be sentenced Feb. 27 and could receive up to five years in prison on each of the two counts. In entering a guilty plea, he admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes.
“Some time ago, I asked my lawyers to inform the U.S. Attorney Carol Lam that I would like to plead guilty and begin serving a prison term,” Cunningham said during his emotional statement Monday. “Today is the culmination of that process. … I will continue to cooperate with the government’s ongoing investigation to the best of my ability.”
In 2002, former Ohio Rep. James Traficant (D) was convicted on 10 counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery.
In 2003, after Traficant was expelled from Congress, a handful of House Republicans introduced a bill that would prevent any lawmaker from receiving a congressional pension after being expelled. Currently, only members convicted of “high crimes” such as treason can lose their pensions.
Republican Reps. Jeff Miller (Fla.) Ginny Brown-Waite (Fla.), Howard Coble (N.C.), Joe Pitts (Pa.) and Lee Terry (Neb.) sponsored the legislation. It stalled after being sent to the House Administration and Government Reform committees for action.