Lawmaker widens probe of Cunningham contacts

House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has broadened a probe into former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham's interactions with his panel to determine if the disgraced lawmaker improperly influenced committee actions during any point in his nearly 15 years in office.

Cunningham, a California Republican and Hunter's close friend and political ally, was convicted last November of taking bribes from defense contractors in return for legislative earmarks that steered military contracts their way. In an April 10 memo to the committee's general counsel, Hunter tasked Democratic and Republican staffers to retrieve all documents and communications dating back to 1991 that refer to Cunningham "in any way."

The memo widens an ongoing investigation Hunter ordered late last month of Cunningham's dealings with the House Armed Services Committee during consideration of the last three defense authorization bills. "It is my desire that this review shall be completed as soon as possible," wrote Hunter, whose San Diego-area district adjoins the one Cunningham represented.

Cunningham, a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and decorated Vietnam veteran, resigned from Congress after he admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from contractors. He was sentenced in March to eight years and four months in federal prison.

The House Armed Services Committee already has reviewed the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill, and found no evidence of impropriety, according to a letter Hunter sent Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee ranking member Vic Snyder, D-Ark., last month. Snyder, who had written Hunter three times over the winter to press for a review of past defense bills, was dissatisfied with the scope of the initial investigation and wanted to examine Cunningham's actions dating back as far as a decade.

Hunter initially ordered that the investigation go back only to the fiscal 2003 bill because "our database easily accommodated that," a spokesman for the committee said today. But the chairman later "decided it was worth the additional time and expense to have staff conduct a more thorough review," the spokesman added.

Keith Ashdown, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said today he supports expanding the probe, but questioned whether Hunter's decision might be politically motivated. "I'm not sure if [Hunter] thinks it's the right thing to do or the politically expedient thing to distance himself," Ashdown said.

In February, Hunter wrote the federal court to request leniency in Cunningham's sentencing and also attended the sentencing hearing in March. But Hunter also has donated to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund nearly $40,000 in campaign donations he received from the PAC of defense contractor MZM Inc., one of the firms involved in the Cunningham bribery scandal.

Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee has launched a similar investigation to determine if Cunningham, who was a member of that panel, inappropriately influenced committee actions or spending decisions for classified projects. The committee has not yet completed that review, a spokesman for the intelligence panel said Monday.

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