Cunningham admits bribes, faces prison, resigns seat in 50th Congressional District

With a wrenching admission of guilt to conspiracy and income tax evasion charges, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-San Diego, resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday.

His announcement in San Diego followed his admission that he accepted some $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. It touched off a new round of jostling among Republicans who have been vying to fill the seat since Cunningham announced in July that he would not seek reelection. A major contender to replace Cunningham is state Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside.

“The truth is — I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my high office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, and most importantly, the trust of my friends and family,” said Cunningham, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam war ace.

The next move now falls to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who by law must decide within the next two weeks to set a date for a special election to fill Cunningham’s seat. The election itself will be held early next year, probably sometime by March or early April, rather than the originally-scheduled slot in next November’s general election.

The seat is likely to remain in Republican hands, given the GOP’s 45-30 registration advantage in the district. One prominent but not-yet-official candidate is Morrow, who said earlier that he is running.

“I said that I’m running from five minutes after Duke Cunningham said he wasn’t seeking reelection,” Morrow said. “We’re in the early stages of organizing the campaign, so we haven’t made the ‘grand entry’ yet.”

Morrow said that his experience in running in another rushed race–the early Republican primary to replace Rep. Ron Packard back in 2000–will give him an advantage. He said he raised $360,000 in three months.

But Morrow lost that race to U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Diego, a wealthy car alarm magnate. Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, said that bad blood between the two from that race could lead Issa to put his influence behind another announced candidate, his friend Alan Uke. A relative unknown, the Turkish-American businessman must be taken seriously due to his personal wealth and connections to Issa, Hoffenblum said.

However, Issa put out a press release earlier this month denying that he had endorsed Uke.

The crowded field of announced candidates also includes San Diego County supervisor Pam Slater Price and George Schwarzman, a moderate Republican best known for garnering a few hundred votes in the recall election.

They were officially joined Monday by Howard Kaloogian, a 45-year-old lawyer and former California Assemblyman who was briefly active in the Gray Davis recall campaign. Kaloogian issued a press release almost simultaneously with Cunningham’s mea culpa, touting his Howard Dean-esque Internet campaign, which he claims gets a new contribution every six minutes. Campaign spokesman Sal Russo said Kaloogian will have an edge due to the name ID he already enjoys as a due to his three terms in the Assembly.

“The shorter campaign gives the greater advantage to candidates who are already well-known,” Russo said. “It puts wealthy candidates who want to buy name ID at a disadvantage.”

The quick election will also likely force the hands of two heavy hitters who have been contemplating runs: Escondido Mayor Lori Pfeiler and former U.S. Congressman Brian Bilbray. Bilbray could have the name recognition to become the front-runner if he decides to run.

“Bilbray’s gonna have to make up his mind real fast,” Hoffenblum said. “My gut feeling is Bilbray will probably run.”

On the Democratic side, Cardiff school board member Francine Busby appears to be unquestioned front-runner. She’s locked up a host of high-profile endorsements, including state treasurer Phil Angelides and insurance commissioner John Garamendi. Busby’s communications director, Brennan Bilberry, said she had raised $248,000 so far.

Last week, Assemblyman Mark Wyland, R-Del Mar, said that he would not be running for Cunningham’s seat, and was focusing instead on Morrow’s state Senate seat. This touched off a scramble in several coming legislative races.

The admission of guilt in U.S. District Court Monday follows months of political trouble for Cunningham. The eight-term Congressman pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million on bribes from defense contractors, including a questionable housing transaction that netted him an alleged $700,000 profit. He agreed to forfeit his home along with $1.8 million in cash and luxury goods.

In an unusually direct statement issued after the court hearing, Cunningham said he was resigning because he had “compromised the trust of my constituents.” He also said that he broke the law and had asked his lawyers “some time ago” to being negotiating a prison term.

He added “I am now almost 65 years old and, as I enter the twilight of my life, I intend to use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends.”

Cunningham’s resignation follows months of very public scandals for Republicans, including another prominent California Congressman, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among others, reported that Doolittle is among a handful of politicians implicated in the evolving political scandal involving Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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