House panel probes Defense bills for taint of scandal

A senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee has prompted an investigation of the last three defense authorization bills, to review requests made by disgraced former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham. The California Republican was convicted of taking bribes from defense contractors in return for earmarks.

Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee ranking member Vic Snyder, D-Ark., had called for a probe into the panel's interactions with Cunningham in three separate letters to Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and ranking member Ike Skelton, D-Mo., over the last two months.

The committee reviewed the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill in the last several weeks, and found no evidence of impropriety, according to a letter Hunter sent Snyder Wednesday. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CongressDaily, Hunter also pledged to look at the fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2005 bills.

After receiving the letter, Snyder said he appreciated the response, but added that he wants the committee to review Cunningham's actions dating back as far as a decade.

According to Hunter's letter, both Republican and Democratic staffers will review the information relating to the past authorization bills, provide a description of Cunningham's requests, and detail actions taken by committee members from the bills' markups through the conclusion of the House and Senate conferences on the bills.

Cunningham resigned from Congress in late November after he admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from contractors. He was sentenced earlier this month to eight years and four months in federal prison.

His scandal has focused attention on campaign donations and the appropriations process, especially the use of spending earmarks to steer federal funds to specific contractors or local programs. So far, the role of defense authorizers has not been an issue.

The House Intelligence Committee launched a similar investigation to determine if Cunningham improperly influenced committee actions or spending decisions for classified projects.

"They're a little late to the parade, but I still think it's an important step to make sure this whole sort of embarrassing era has ended," said Keith Ashdown at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

In his letters, Snyder raised concerns that Cunningham's reach might have extended beyond the Defense appropriations bill and could have influenced language in the annual defense authorization measure. Cunningham was a member of the House Defense Appropriations Committee, and was Hunter's close friend and political ally, partly due to their adjoining San Diego-area districts.

"The committee is owed the assurance that neither the institution nor the staff was involved or used for anything improper," Snyder said in his latest and most detailed letter, dated March 16.

In that letter, Snyder suggested the parameters for an investigation that would center on an exhaustive review of Cunningham's requests to the committee, whether those requests involved companies tied to the bribery scandal and whether those requests were honored.

"The Congress and the American people deserve to be assured that our committee structure, staffing, policies and procedures are up to the task of preventing and detecting unethical behavior by staff, members or lobbyists," Snyder wrote.

But Snyder also wanted the committee to probe deeper and investigate whether any other lawmakers requested projects for companies involved in the bribery scandal.

"It would be nearly impossible to go back and cross-reference all of this," an Armed Services spokesman said.

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