Cunningham, who resigned from Congress in disgrace last year, was spared the 10-year maximum by U.S. District Judge Larry Burns but was immediately taken into custody. He also was ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for back taxes and forfeit $1.85 million in valuables he received.
Cunningham accepted money and gifts including a Rolls-Royce and $40,000 Persian rugs from defense contractors and others in exchange for steering government contracts their way and other favors.
Federal prosecutors sought the maximum and his attorneys asked for mercy, but Cunningham, choking up as he addressed the judge, focused on accepting blame. "Your honor I have ripped my life to shreds due to my actions, my actions that I did to myself," he said.
"I made a very wrong turn. I rationalized decisions I knew were wrong. I did that, sir," Cunningham said.
Much thinner than when he pleaded guilty in November — he said he has gone from 265 pounds to 175 pounds since June — Cunningham had asked to see his 91-year-old mother one last time before going to prison, but was denied.
CBS Radio News reports that Cunningham's attorney argued the former congressman should be spared the maximum ten-year sentence because he is older and in poor health. His attorney says Cunningham has prostate cancer and could die behind bars.
The judge, while crediting Cunningham for his military service and for taking responsibility, questioned why he felt compelled to betray his constituents and his colleagues for luxuries.
"You weren't wet. You weren't cold. You weren't hungry and yet you did these things," Burns said. "I think what you've done is you've undermined the opportunity that honest politicians have to do a good job."
The staggering details of Cunningham's wrongdoing surpass anything in the history of Congress, Senate and House historians have said. "In the sheer dollar amount, he is the most corrupt," said Deputy House Historian Fred W. Beuttler.
The longest term meted out to congressmen in the past four decades had been eight years, handed to former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, in 2002 for taking payoffs, and to former Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y., in 1988 for extorting nearly $2 million from a defense contractor.
Prosecutor Phil Halpern told the judge that while Cunningham was living the good life "he was squandering precious tax dollars for, among other things, systems the military didn't ask for, didn't need and frequently didn't use."
Cunningham's attorney Lee Blalack asked for six years for the former Navy "Top Gun" flight instructor and Vietnam War flying ace.
Cunningham, 64 and a congressman for 15 years, rubbed away tears while Blalack addressed the court. He appeared to be crying quietly when Blalack referred to his wartime service.
Blalack said that given Cunningham's age and history of prostate cancer, "there is a significant likelihood" he would not survive a 10-year sentence, and that he already has suffered greatly.
"This man has been humiliated beyond belief by his own hand. He is estranged from those he loves most and cares most about," Blalack said. "All his worldly possessions are gone. He will carry a crushing tax debt until the day he dies. He will go to jail until he's 70 years old."
Prosecutor Jason A. Forge said Cunningham should not get a break for committing crimes late in life, and doubted his apparent remorse, pointing out that after the allegations emerged he spent months falsely denying them.
"The fact of the matter is Mr. Cunningham went down kicking and screaming," Forge said.
The sentence reverberated in Washington, D.C.
"It is my hope that Congressman Cunningham will spend his incarceration thinking long and hard about how he broke the trust of the voters that elected him and those on Capitol Hill who served with him," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the CIA inspector general is looking into the relationship between Executive Director Kyle "Dusty" Foggo and a defense contractor allegedly linked to the bribery of a former congressman.
An agency official says it's a routine investigation, adding that it's standard practice to look into assertions that mention agency officers.
Foggo is the third-ranking official at the CIA.
One of Foggo's closest friends has been accused as an unindicted co-conspirator of taking part in a plot to bribe Cunningham while he was still in Congress.
Cunningham pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to tax evasion and a conspiracy involving four others. It is among a series of GOP scandals: Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty pleas in a corruption investigation; a campaign-finance indictment that forced Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas to step down as majority leader; a stock sale by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that is under investigation; and the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff in the CIA leak case.
The case against Cunningham began when authorities started investigating his sale of his Del Mar house to defense contractor Mitchell Wade for $1,675,000, a price inflated by $700,000.
Wade admitted giving Cunningham more than $1 million in gifts, including a yacht, cash, cars, antiques and meals. He pleaded guilty last month to conspiring with Cunningham, among four corruption charges that carry a maximum prison term of 20 years.
The judge recommended that Cunningham serve his sentence at a federal prison in Taft, Calif. Time off for good behavior could cut his sentence to about seven years.
A special election to fill Cunningham's seat is set for April 11. The district is heavily Republican but Democrats hope to capture it; their candidate Francine Busby is to deliver the party's weekly radio address on Saturday.