In 2007, Jerry Kammer left the Washington office of the wire service tied to The San Diego Union-Tribune. But he was yanked back — in memory, at least — when Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned former San Diego congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
It was investigative reporting on Cunningham’s crimes by Kammer and colleague Marcus Stern — who broke the first stories — that led to Copley News Service and the U-T winning a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006.
Officially, the prize went to the staffs. But the citation highlighted “notable work” by Stern and Kammer “for their disclosure of bribe-taking that sent former Rep. Randy Cunningham to prison in disgrace.”
Now 71 and retired in State College, Pennsylvania, Kammer doesn’t see the pardon — seven years after Cunningham left prison — as degrading his work of 2005.
“The only thing tarnished by this pardon is the record of Donald Trump,” Kammer said Wednesday. “This goes right into Trump’s ‘Shocking but Not Surprising’ file.”
He says a book about the former “Top Gun” instructor he wrote with Stern, the U-T’s Dean Calbreath and Copley News Service chief George E. Condon Jr. made the case that Cunningham was the most corrupt member of Congress in history.
Kammer also noted that the book, “The Wrong Stuff,” reported how then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich got Cunningham named to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, controlling as much as $50 million a year in earmarks.
On Tuesday, the White House said Gingrich “strongly supports this pardon.”
But the chairman of the full committee — Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana — tried to resist Gingrich’s order on Cunningham, Kammer said.
“When I interviewed Livingston for the book, he told me that Gingrich wanted Duke to be on the committee so that he could leverage the position to raise money for the party,” he said.
Cunningham proved as skillful at making money via defense industry ties as he was shooting down Russian MiGs in Vietnam.
His plea bargain noted that he received at least $2.4 million in illicit payments and benefits in the form of “cash, checks, meals, travel, lodging, furnishings, antiques, rugs, yacht club fees, boat repairs and improvements, moving expenses, cars and boats.”
The disgraced Republican congressman apparently still has a debt to pay, however.
Trump’s pardon was called “conditional,” and retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern — who prosecuted Cunningham and former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter — says clemency hinges on whether he meets his forfeiture and restitution obligations.
Halpern on Wednesday said he’s not personally troubled by the Cunningham and Hunter pardons.
“As a result of their criminal prosecution, they were both forced to resign from Congress in disgrace and admit the full range of their corruption,” he said. “Their political careers ended and their family life was regrettably left in tatters. The criminal justice system prevailed as society saw that those who write the laws are not above the law.”
But as a private citizen, he called himself appalled by Trump rewarding them and other political cronies while simply ignoring or excusing their corruption.
“I’m not surprised, though, as this was just business as usual in the Trump White House,” Halpern said. “Sadly, Trump’s brazen and repeated abuse of the sacred power with which he was entrusted became the very symbol of his presidency. History will not judge this dangerous demagogue kindly.”
Stern — whose front-page story June 12, 2005, was the first to allege bribe-taking — says the Cunningham scandal “seems so long ago to me … Fifteen years. I’d prefer Duke stay in the forgotten past, except as a cautionary tale.”
He said the pardon doesn’t tarnish the work of journalists and prosecutors who revealed Cunningham’s crimes.
“Nor does it remove the stain he brought upon himself,” Stern said via email from his home in Parkland, Florida. “He remains disgraced by his greed and arrogance.”
Being part of that investigative scrum was exciting and professionally fulfilling, Stern, 67, said of a time of journalistic camaraderie.
“Working on this story revealed to me how closely public corruption is tied to human nature,” he said. “Washington isn’t a swamp to be drained. It’s a garden that needs to be tended. This ‘pardon’ didn’t right a wrong; it sprouted another weed.”
Dani Dodge, a Los Angeles-based artist, contributed to the Cunningham coverage as a U-T reporter.
“I do not think the pardon tarnishes the stories in any way,” she said. “Those stories did an incredible public service by revealing a man who was defrauding the voters by selling his own influence for cold, hard cash.”
She said the pardon says much more about the person issuing it than the stories that “revealed the corruption of our democracy in the first place.”
Condon, who edited the Copley News Service stories as bureau chief, learned of the pardons when they were issued at 1:15 a.m. (He now covers the White House for National Journal.)
His initial reaction: “Disgusted. I immediately tweeted: ‘Duke Cunningham. A pardon. No words.’ I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him on the list, given some of the others who have gotten pardons from this president.”
Condon didn’t credit the pardon with any rational reasoning.
“President Trump always takes the side of politicians accused of corruption, even when they admit it and plead guilty. To him, it is always the fault of corrupt prosecutors on a ‘witch hunt,'” he said. “Toss in the intercession of Newt Gingrich and the deed was done.”
He echoed the book he helped write: “Remember that Gingrich is the speaker who always looked the other way on Cunningham because Cunningham raised so much money for the GOP.”
Another U-T alumnus, Bill Callahan, was the legal affairs editor involved in the Cunningham coverage.
He credited reporters Onell Soto and Greg Moran for doing great work “as Cunningham’s shenanigans unraveled after the initial stories about his bogus Del Mar/Rancho Santa Fe real estate dealings were broken by the Copley team.”
Callahan doubts anyone’s really surprised about the Cunningham news given Trump’s earlier pardons. Nor does he think it diminishes the paper’s work.
“The Cunningham coverage was an incredible booster for staff morale and the paper’s image,” he said. “I remember thinking that the Pulitzer Prize-winning defrocking of a GOP stalwart would finally end the perception some in the community had of the paper as a conservative bastion.”
Ironically, he now sees some of his pro-Trump acquaintances saying on Facebook that the U-T is a “liberal flag-waver.”
“One thing that Onell, Greg and I couldn’t stop laughing about were the details of Cunningham’s regular poker parties with D.C. lobbyists,” Callahan said. “Somehow, Cunningham ALWAYS won and could not believe his luck.”
He added that prosecutor Halpern told him the paper’s coverage did all the work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s prosecution.
“Halpern and I chuckled when history repeated itself last year when Halpern and team picked up the sordid U-T template on Duncan Hunter’s transgressions,” Callahan said.
Former U-T data specialist and investigative reporter Danielle Cervantes Stephens, now an adjunct professor of journalism at Point Loma Nazarene University, said that at least Cunningham served time.
The younger Duncan Hunter, pardoned several weeks ago, will avoid his sentence entirely, she noted.
“I know paying for airplane tickets for pet rabbits and video games with campaign finance money is not the same thing as taking bribes from a military contractor,” Stephens said. “But when I heard about that pardon, I felt bad for U-T reporter Morgan Cook who broke the Hunter story and didn’t get to see him on the other side of bars.”
Former reporter Soto, now a San Diego attorney after being the U-T’s federal courts reporter, says the pardon was in line with Trump’s desires to help friends who had supported him.
“I wrote many stories regarding the prosecution and conviction of the most corrupt congressman ever caught,” Soto said. “I remember spending hours putting together a spreadsheet of favors and bribes he received, including a boat, a Rolls Royce and trips with prostitutes.”
Soto echoed others.
Nothing Trump could do tarnishes the work the team did exposing Cunningham’s corruption, he said.
“What struck me, however, was Cunningham’s ability to deny obvious truths in front of supporters, which ultimately crumbled when he faced certain prison time,” he said. “His reputation cannot improve with a pardon from this disgraced former president.”
Calbreath, a former U-T business writer and columnist, bemoaned the fact Cunningham spent time behind bars — more than seven years — while Hunter did not.
But at least Hunter was removed from office “where he could have created more havoc,” Calbreath said. “That having been said, it does kinda cheapen the presidential pardoning process, which was meant to address potential injustices in the justice system. That’s not what happened to Cunningham.”
Halpern, whose column ripping former Attorney General William Barr drew wide notice, said: “As a person who cares about equality, I’m disgusted by Trump’s use of his pardon power not as a vehicle to extend clemency to those deserving mercy, but to reward his friends, to protect himself from possible criminal charges, as favors to celebrities and rich donors, and to further his own financial interests.”
He concluded: “As can be said about so much of [Trump’s] presidency, it’s simply disgusting and, at bottom, un-American.”
Updated at 10:45 p.m. Jan. 27, 2021