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FDL Book Salon Welcomes the Authors of “The Wrong Stuff”

51m4-hgqzvl_aa240_.jpg(Please welcome George Condon and Marcus Stern, two of the co-authors–along with Jerry Kammer and Dean Calbreath–of The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught. As always with guests here at FDL, please be polite and stay on topic in comments and questions. Any off-topic comments should be taken to another thread. Please join me in giving George and Marcos a big FDL welcome. — emptywheel)

2005 was the year two regional papers showed the media establishment what it meant to act as a watchdog over the powerful. There was the Toledo Blade, which busted Tom Noe and a bunch of corrupt Ohio Republicans for dumping the money from the state’s Workers Comp fund into Noe’s risky rare coin scheme. And there was the team joining us today from Copley News and the San Diego Union-Tribune, which uncovered the unbelievably audacious bribery scheme that funded Duke Cunningham’s extravagant lifestyle. We complain a lot about the mainstream media in the blogosphere–but this story and this book provide an example of the great work that a team of professional, tenacious journalists can accomplish.

The Wrong Stuff is an excellent book on many levels. It pulls together the entire story–not just of Cunningham’s corruption, but of the network of Southern California Republicans sucking taxpayer dollars up using the appropriations process. It adds some fascinating details to the story presented in the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s coverage. My favorites include:

  • The description of Cunningham as a crier (“He was always weeping,” Robert Dornan is quoted as saying)
  • Details about how Cunningham tried to inflate even his military heroism
  • The description of Cunningham’s hot tub–filled with water from the Potomac and never cleaned–which he insisted on using while stark naked, even in the middle of parties
  • Mitchell Wade’s boasts that he had Dick Cheney “in his backpocket”

It’s a good narrative too: while the book ostensibly tells Cunningham’s biography, the authors weave the many tangential players into the story gracefully, as they do here when they introduce Brent Wilkes into Duke’s Cunningham’s narrative:

In May 1972, as Duke Cunningham was in aerial combat against North Vietnamese fighter pilots, Brent Wilkes–who three decades later would be identified as co-conspirator number one in the Cunningham corruption case–was entering the final month of his senior year at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista…

With such transitions they manage to tie the whole corrupt crowd into the story, while remaining a readable book.

But the thing that makes this book important beyond Cunningham and his corrupt buddies is the larger framework the authors hang the story onto: the abuse of the Congressional earmark system. Here’s their description of how the earmark system has ballooned into an industry unto itself.

When Reagan took office in 1981, there were fewer than ten earmarks in the transportation bill, according to the Heritage Foundation. Seven years later, the president vetoed the bill because it had 121 earmarks in it. In 1991, that grew to 538 earmarks; then 1,850 by 1998; and by 2005 the total surpassed 6,373–costing a staggering $24.2 billion–according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

And the problem was not confined to the transportation bill. In a bitter irony for fiscal conservatives, the pork swelled in all spending bills after Republicans took over. Two years earlier, under Democrats, there had been 892 earmarks worth $2.6 billion. By 1998, there were about 2,000 earmarks worth $10.6 billion. By 2005, the number had jumped to nearly 14,000, at a cost of $27.3 billion.

The architect of the Republican takeover, Speaker Newt Gingrich, ordered appropriators to make sure that vulnerable Republican members got what they needed for local projects. Earmarking might have been terrible governance, but it was great politics. Earmarks were part of the Washington incumbent protection machine, especially for Republican leaders determined to protect their majority status.

Under the close watch of Gingrich and his top lieutenant, Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republicans took to assigning members from toss-up districts to Appropriations Committees. This paid immediate political dividends. It allowed newcomers, despite their lack of seniority, to deliver more pork projects to their district and it allowed them to raise more money because now they could hit up the companies that wanted earmarks.

Not surprisingly, the ranks of Washington lobbyists swelled in tandem with earmarking. The selling of earmarks became a specialized industry because lobbying firms recruited former members of Congress and congressional staffers whose connections could grease the process. By one count in 2005, Washington had nearly thirty-five thousand registered lobbyists, more than twice as many as it had in 2000, and sixty-five for every member of Congress.

This is a book about Duke Cunningham. But at many levels, Cunningham and Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes and Dusty Foggo are only archetypes used to illustrate how earmarks, in the hands of self-important men, invite massive corruption and inefficient government. As such the book is important beyond the Cunningham case, because it reminds us that Congress has thus far refused to substantially change the system that enabled Duke Cunningham’s corruption.

There’s one more interesting thread in the book. In addition to the story of Duke Cunningham’s corruption, the book tells how each of the four authors pulled on a string associated with Cunningham and uncovered another part of the story, not least the way that Marcus Stern noted a detail in a story he was editing–that the Saudi-American Ziyad Abduljawad had sponsored two trips to Saudi Arabia for Cunningham to “promote discourse and better relations.” Stern recognized that the stated reason for the trip was bogus–this is the kind of bullshit detector so few journalists seem to use anymore. From there, Stern conducted a “lifestyle audit” of Cunningham, which is how he discovered Cunningham’s new mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, and after that, the complex bribes that made such an extravagant house possible. It’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of reporting the story. And you’ll be glad to know this section pays tribute to the work of Josh Marshall and other bloggers who helped uncover the larger network of bribes. Not only is the book a testament to what professional reporters can and should be doing, but it’s a nod to the way that bloggers and professional reporters can work together to hold the powerful accountable.

I’ll end with an anecdote. As I related the other day, I was reading this book while sitting next to Michigan Congressman Joe Knollenberg on my flight to DC last week. He watched out of the corner of his eye as I read intently and took copious notes. All of which seemed to be making Knollenberg very very uncomfortable (and he certainly seemed to have no interest in doing work while sitting next to a DFH blogger). What better recommendation can you give a book, than that the mere act of reading it in close proximity to Republican Congressmen makes them all squirmy and nervous?

I’ll start today’s discussion with two questions I think many readers will want answered (I’ll save my really weedy ones for the comment section):

  • This epilogue includes early details about Carol Lam’s firing (and notes that DOJ “took an unusually long time in approving the indictments of Cunningham, Foggo, and Wilkes”). Can you say more about the delays in the indictments? And given all the details that have been revealed since the publication of the book, do you have a better sense of whether the Lam firing was retaliation for the Cunningham prosecution? Has the Lam firing affected the work of the AUSAs who are prosecuting the case (who are profiled in the book)? And do you think that (former Los Angeles US Attorney) Deborah Wong Yang’s departure ties to the Jerry Lewis investigation?
  • As you relate in your book, Thomas Kontogiannis is the guy who accompanied Cunningham on that trip to Saudi Arabia and one of the guys paying his Rancho Santa Fe mortgage. In the last month or so, details of Thomas Kontogiannis’ plea deal have been unsealed. Are there any details from what has been unsealed that you think adds significantly to the story? What questions do you still have about Kontogiannis’ involvement?
Book SalonCommunity

FDL Book Salon Welcomes the Authors of “The Wrong Stuff”

51m4-hgqzvl_aa240_.jpg(Please welcome George Condon and Marcus Stern, two of the co-authors–along with Jerry Kammer and Dean Calbreath–of The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught. As always with guests here at FDL, please be polite and stay on topic in comments and questions. Any off-topic comments should be taken to another thread. Please join me in giving George and Marcos a big FDL welcome. — emptywheel)

2005 was the year two regional papers showed the media establishment what it meant to act as a watchdog over the powerful. There was the Toledo Blade, which busted Tom Noe and a bunch of corrupt Ohio Republicans for dumping the money from the state’s Workers Comp fund into Noe’s risky rare coin scheme. And there was the team joining us today from Copley News and the San Diego Union-Tribune, which uncovered the unbelievably audacious bribery scheme that funded Duke Cunningham’s extravagant lifestyle. We complain a lot about the mainstream media in the blogosphere–but this story and this book provide an example of the great work that a team of professional, tenacious journalists can accomplish.

The Wrong Stuff is an excellent book on many levels. (more…)

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