A ‘perfect storm’ of greed and opportunity

In 2005, journalists Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, George E. Condon Jr. and Dean Calbreath broke the story about the tangled web of corruption that led to the downfall of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.). The next year, they were rewarded for their efforts with a Pulitzer Prize. The Hill recently interviewed Stern about their new book, The Wrong Stuff.

Calbreath has been a reporter with the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1997, while the other three have more than 50 years of experience combined at Copley News Service.

Q:  What are the most important lessons to draw from the Duke Cunningham story?

A:  On one level, it’s that our procurement system and appropriations process are too opaque. With this much money and this little transparency, insider deals become all the more possible.
But more broadly, the lesson is that corruption is ubiquitous and linked to human nature. It’s part of the white noise of government. And it’s not a partisan issue. We see now that Democrats are having real trouble enacting reform because both parties have created a system that protects incumbents. We have to remember that corruption always has to be dealt with — just like a garden that needs constant weeding. We always have to come back.

Q:  If you and your team hadn’t broken the story when you did, do you think it would have come out into the open at some point?

A:  I worry that it got as far as it did. I could have written the story on Cunningham’s house sale to contractor Mitchell Wade [in an elaborate bribe, Wade paid far more than the house was worth], and the story could have gone nowhere. But it just so happened that the blogs amplified the story, and we had a criminal justice system that responded very quickly. Finally, Wade decided to dump everything in the government’s lap. But if any of those factors hadn’t been in place, the bribery could very well have remained hidden and continue today.

Q:  The book goes into great detail explaining the explosive growth of earmarks — almost tripling in dollar value from 1998 to 2005 — and their role in the procurement process. What was the primary driver of this trend?

A:  In terms of recent developments, I’d say it was the streamlining of the Pentagon’s procurement process since the 1990s, combined with the huge growth in defense and intelligence budgets after Sept. 11, 2001. But earmarks themselves have been around a long time, and they create a system of so-called “honest graft.” Cunningham was an extreme case because he went over the line with overt bribes and lavish gifts, but there’s also a legal system in place in which appropriators use earmarks to steer millions of dollars in contracts to supporters, who in turn give them hundreds of thousands of dollars for reelection.

Q:  What do you make of the current efforts regarding earmark reform under the new Democratic majority?

A:  I don’t think there are any encouraging signs. The first step would be to address the issue of earmarks head-on, but I’m not persuaded Democrats will do anything meaningful. And even if they do, will they go back and look at it every few years? I just don’t think that will happen, since the game benefits both parties. Both have an interest in maintaining the secrecy of the procurement and appropriations processes.

Q:  What was it about Cunningham, as an individual, that made him so easy to exploit? Your book goes into some detail on his early years, when we already see the greed and a well-developed taste for luxury goods.

A:  Yes, he arrived in Congress already flawed, and he was an easy mark for the predatory contractors who thrive in Washington. Add that to the inherent avarice in Washington culture, and all the money flowing through the chambers, and you create a very dangerous mixture — the perfect storm.