Tuesday, August 28, 2007

U-T Reporter Dean Calbreath Speaks to First U-U Church

Part of Team of Four that Broke the Cunningham Scandal


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Dean Calbreath, one of the team of reporters from the San Diego Union-Tribune (along with Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer and George E. Condon Jr.) who broke the corruption story involving former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham, began his presentation on the case August 25 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest with an “anecdote” about Cunningham he heard too late to incorporate into any of the articles or the team’s book about the case, The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught.

Calbreath heard the story from a motorcycle-shop owner in North County. “He said, ‘I got a call a couple of years ago from Cunningham’s chief of staff, who said he was setting up some constituent visits in the district. He said, “The Congressmember would really like to visit you in your shop and talk about small-business problems and what your situation is like.”’ The guy says, ‘Sure, sure.’ He puts up this big banner saying, ‘Welcome, Randy “Duke” Cunningham,’ and lays out cookies and soda pop. Cunningham and his chief of staff arrive at the shop, and instead of going right into the shop, he stands outside looking at these jet-skis. The guy goes out to greet him, and Cunningham says, ‘I have a jet-ski, just like one of these. But it’s old and worn, and I’d really like another one.’ The store owner says, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to sell you one and service it for you,’ and Cunningham says, ‘That’s fine, but the last one was given to me.’”

To Calbreath, that just symbolized the overreaching and personal greed that finally brought Cunningham down — and set him apart from other Congressmembers who have also taken favors from lobbyists and pushed dubious programs at the behest of campaign contributors. “He was on the make for a long time, and he still could be if he hadn’t been stupid and greedy,” Calbreath said. “I think he believed he was entitled to get what he got: ‘I was the only Navy ace in Viet Nam. I’ve spent all this time serving my country. I deserve six 17th Century commodes.’”

The Cunningham story broke two years ago, Calbreath explained, when Stern was working on a story involving Congressmembers being treated to free plane rides by lobbyists. Stern discovered Cunningham had gone on two such trips — surprisingly, despite all the information that’s come out on Cunningham in the past two years, it’s still not known who paid for them or why — “but when he found the two flights, he decided to do a ‘lifestyle’ piece on Cunningham and see how he got what he got.”

The idea behind Stern’s story was to see if Cunningham was living more lavishly than he could have on his Congressional salary — and he was, big-time. “Cunningham was living in a $2.4 million house in Rancho Santa Fe,” Calbreath recalled. “He had just sold his former house in Del Mar for $1.7 million to a business entity called 1635 New Hampshire Avenue. Mark recognized that as a D.C. address and found out it was run by a guy named Mitchell Wade who owned a company called MZM, Inc. He started thinking about what MZM was and how it had got from zero business with the federal government to $1.4 million in federal contracts.” Stern was also thinking about why Wade would have bought Cunningham’s Del Mar home for $1.7 million when the going rate for similar houses in the same neighborhood was $900,000 — which was what Wade got when he resold the house a few months later.

“Mark called Cunningham up and asked him, ‘Who’s Mitchell Wade?’” Calbreath recalled. “Cunningham said, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy I met. I don’t know him very well.’ Mark asked if Cunningham had helped MZM, Inc. get government contracts, and Cunningham said, ‘Sure. I always like to help my constituents.’” With those few words, Calbreath explained, Cunningham had admitted to breaking the law, establishing a quid pro quo money-for-favors relationship with Wade that was enough to justify a story and ultimately send Cunningham to prison.

Ironically, Calbreath said, it was the attempt of Cunningham and Wade to cover up their real-estate scam with a phony business name that led to Cunningham’s undoing. “If the buyer’s name on the document had been ‘Mitchell Wade,’ Mark probably wouldn’t have investigated,” Calbreath said. Instead, the first Cunningham story sparked a series — and led Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner to call what Calbreath called a “war council” to see if any of San Diego’s other Congressmembers, Republicans Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter and Democrats Bob Filner and Susan Davis, were pulling similar tricks. They also looked briefly at powerful Southern California Republican Congressmembers Jerry Lewis and John Doolittle.

According to Calbreath, the investigations sparked by the “war council” found some questionable practices, but nothing like the scope or extent of Cunningham’s misdeeds. Like Cunningham, Duncan Hunter, the influential San Diego Republican who chaired the House Armed Services Committee until the Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 election, took contributions from defense contractors and used earmarks to get their pet projects funded whether or not the military wanted them — but Hunter didn’t live visibly beyond his means as a Congressmember and there was no evidence he was being personally enriched by the companies and lobbyists he was helping.

“Hunter isn’t being made a rich man the way Cunningham was,” Calbreath said. “With Hunter, I think contractors tell him, ‘This will be good for the country and good for your district. It’ll create jobs.’ So he puts in earmarks for weapons systems the military doesn’t even want, whether it’s a plane that won’t fly or the X-Craft, which the Navy thinks is a boondoggle and Hunter thinks is the ship of the future. The Pentagon doesn’t routinely question the money it gets, but a lot of these things are they don’t ask for. Hunter seems to think he knows better what the military needs than the military itself does. He thinks he’s doing the right thing. I think he’s deluded himself.”

One story Calbreath worked on for a while was about Congressmember Doolittle’s “nifty scheme” to divert campaign contributions to his personal funds. “He was taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions — which is legal — and his campaign manager took 15 percent of these donations as payment for her services, which is also legal. Except that his campaign manager was his wife and her company had no other employees, it was based in their home and her only other client was [convicted former lobbyist] Jack Abramoff.”

Calbreath said Filner was working a similar scheme — he too had his wife on his payroll as a “consultant” and paid her out of campaign donations — but it wasn’t as obvious because she’d been a political consultant before their marriage and she had other politicians as clients. He said Davis, San Diego’s other Democratic Congressmember, “has also taken a lot of money from military contractors. I think she’s a capable person and I don’t think she’s involved in bribery, but she’s serving her constituents with money.”

In a sense, the real problem with political corruption, Calbreath argued, is it’s bipartisan and therefore neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties have an incentive to get rid of it. Calbreath said he’s lived abroad — in Japan, China, the Czech Republic and much of Eastern Europe — “and people there tell me, ‘You’re always criticizing us for corruption, but what we call “bribes” you call “campaign contributions.”’” While Calbreath is convinced “there will always be corruption,” he’s particularly concerned about the way it was “mechanized” under former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, who among other things arranged for lobbyists to serve as go-betweens so Congressmembers wouldn’t receive questionable contributions direct from the companies seeking government favors.

“Some of that mechanism has been dissolved” since the Democrats took over Congress and DeLay was convicted on corruption-related charges, Calbreath acknowledged, “but for how long? It’s a bipartisan problem.” Calbreath said that the Democrats were given the Congressional majority in 2006 largely because they promised to end the so-called “culture of corruption” in Washington, D.C. — but he said the most potentially useful reform, a requirement that any Congressmember putting an earmark into an appropriation bill tag it with his or her own name, so it would be public record just who was seeking these funds for this project — came from Republican Duncan Hunter.

Calbreath’s prepared presentation took less than half an hour, but he took audience questions from over an hour. The topics ranged from the future of journalism and the role of media consolidation and the Internet in shaping what we know about news to the war in Iraq and even the problems with electronic voting machines, a topic Calbreath has never been called to report on and therefore knew little about. He did warn that the ongoing financial problems facing all newspapers make it less likely that you’ll see the kind of aggressive investigative reporting it took to break the Cunningham scandal.