Congress' 'Black' Budgets Scrutinized

Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, of the 50th district in California, wipes away tears while making a statement outside the federal courthouse in San Diego, Monday,Nov. 28, 2005. Cunninghan resigned Monday after pleading guilty to bribery and admitting he took $2.4 million to steer defense contracts to conspirators using his leadership position on a congressional subcommittee. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
AP
An independent investigation has found that imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham took advantage of secrecy and badgered congressional aides to help slip items into classified bills that would benefit him and his associates.

The finding comes from Michael Stern, an outside investigator hired by the House Intelligence Committee to look into how Cunningham was able to carry out the scheme. Stern is working with the committee to fix vulnerabilities in the way top-secret legislation is written, said congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee still is being briefed on Stern's findings.

Cunningham's case has put a stark spotlight on the oversight of classified — or "black" — budgets. Unlike legislation dealing with social and economic issues, intelligence bills and parts of defense bills are written in private, in the name of national security.

That means it is up to members of Congress and select aides with security clearances to ensure that legislation is appropriate.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and the top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, took the unusual step of hiring Stern to investigative how Cunningham used his seat on the committee to influence legislation for his own enrichment.

Federal prosecutors found that Cunningham accepted $2.4 million in bribes, including payments for a mansion, a Rolls-Royce and a 65-foot yacht, in return for steering defense and intelligence contracts to certain companies. Cunningham pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

Stern has told the committee that Cunningham's efforts to steer business to friends and associates were far worse in the spending bills written by the House Appropriations Committee than those written by the House Intelligence Committee, congressional officials say. But the intelligence panel that draws up the blueprint for spending by the government's spy agencies was not immune to his misdeeds.

Hoekstra said Stern, as a final step, wants to interview Cunningham in prison to find out more about how he influenced the system. The Justice Department is resisting because it has other potential prosecutions pending in the case, so Hoekstra is considering subpoenaing the former lawmaker.