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."