Other segments from the episode on May 23, 2007
DATE May 23, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Marcus Stern, one of the reporters who uncovered the
Duke Cunningham bribery scandal and co-author of a new book on
said scandal, on Duke and the climate of corruption in Washington
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Mr. RANDY "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM: In my life I have had great joy and great
sorrow; and now I know great shame. I learned in Vietnam that the true
measure of a man is how he responds to adversity. I can't undo what I've
done, but I can atone.
DAVIES: That's former California Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham on
November 28th, 2005, when the Vietnam War hero plead guilty to taking over $2
million in bribes from defense contractors he helped get government contracts.
Later, Cunningham would get the stiffest prison sentence ever imposed on a
member of Congress, eight years and four months.
Our guest Marcus Stern is the journalist who first exposed Cunningham's
corrupt relationships with the defense contractor. His June 2005 story in the
San Diego Union-Tribune caught the eye of federal prosecutors, who soon
brought criminal charges against Cunningham and his co-conspirators.
Marcus Stern is the Washington news editor for Copley News Service. He and
co-authors Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath, and George Condon won the 2006
Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Their new book is both the story of a
colorful, crooked politician and a look at the practices in Congress that
encourage corruption. It's called "The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga
of Randy `Duke' Cunningham, The Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught."
Well, Marcus Stern, welcome to FRESH AIR. Duke Cunningham, the congressman
who was at the center of this scandal, was a real romantic figure, a war hero,
before he got to Congress. Tell us what he achieved as a Navy pilot.
Mr. MARCUS STERN: Well, he became the war's first ace, and an ace is a
designation that pilots are very proud of, combat pilots. It means they've
shot down five enemy planes. And he did that on May 10th, 1972, he shot down
three within seven minutes, and then he himself got shot down and got plucked
out of the waters and was immediately returned home stateside. The war was
over him. His new role was to be a hero, and there were parades and there
were public appearances and radio and TV, and he never fought again.
DAVIES: Were there aspects of his military record that raised questions about
his character, integrity?
Mr. STERN: There were some signs, some signs from those years that, as we
look back at them and took another look at them, that this person that emerged
later from behind the public persona actually was present in times of war.
That is to say, when he was in the Navy, he already was beginning to show
signs of greed and a sense of entitlement. He was upset at one point that he
wasn't getting, he thought, a good enough evaluation and he snuck into his
commander's office and he looked at the evaluations of all the other pilots,
something which he should have been severely reprimanded for but wasn't. The
Navy looked the other way.
And when he became a war hero, after May 10th, 1972, he was told he was going
to get the Navy's highest honor, the Navy Cross. Most sailors and fliers
would have been thrilled, but he and his back-seater, a guy named Willy
Driscoll, went to their commanding officer and said, `You know, we want to
hold out for the Medal of Honor,' and the commanding...
DAVIES: Hold out?
Mr. STERN: Yeah. The commanding officer was just stunned. Took them into
his office, left the door open so others could hear and he said, `You don't
hold out for the Medal of Honor. You die for it.' And told them to get their
blues cleaned and pressed and their shoes shined, their hair cut and to show
up and allow a grateful nation to bestow the Navy Cross on them, which they
did do. But what was stunning was, the reason why he said he wanted to hold
out for the Medal of Honor. He told his commander that he wanted the stipend.
It came with a stipend. And we calculated that that would be about $100 a
month. It wasn't a lot of money. But it was money that he felt at that time
that he was owed, and I think that when--and with that we could see the seeds
of this greed going back before his arrival in Washington.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of Vietnam War veterans went on to careers in
politics and many of them were reluctant to talk about their combat
experience. How did Duke Cunningham describe his war experience to people he
knew, maybe people he wanted to impress?
Mr. STERN: He was remarkable. He wore it on his sleeve. That's an
understatement. He actually, what it did, is he kept pictures of himself in
his flight suit and he would autograph them and hand them out, and he would
constantly tell people he'd just met that he was not just a congressman but he
was also as war hero. That he was the person, the character--he would
wrongfully state that he was the person that the character Maverick in "Top
Gun," played by Tom Cruise, that he was the model for that character. And he
used it all the time in debate on the House floor or in hearings, constantly
reminding other members of Congress that he had flown jets, that he had
fought, and asking sometimes--pointedly asking other members that he knew had
not been in the military--about their military service just to minimize them,
to put them down.
DAVIES: Did anyone from the movie "Top Gun" ever call him on this claim that
he was the model for Tom Cruise's character?
Mr. STERN: Yeah, they have. We've interviewed some of the people involved
with the screenwriting and so forth and the production of the film, and also
at one point Tom Cruise sent a letter to Cunningham demanding that he not use
a picture of the two of them together in his campaign materials because he did
not support Cunningham politically.
DAVIES: But he continued to portray himself as the real Tom Cruise?
Mr. STERN: Yeah. He was larger than life in his own mind.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marcus Stern. He is the
Washington news editor for Copley News Service. He's also co-author of a new
book "The Wrong Stuff," about the scandal surrounding former San Diego
Congressman Duke Cunningham.
You know, you make the point that this isn't just the story of a bad guy doing
bad things, but about things in the government in Congress that allow, or even
invite, this kind of corruption. At the heart of it is this thing, the
earmark, which people have read some about. Briefly, what is an earmark?
Mr. STERN: An earmark is a provision that is slipped into a bill, usually
when it's in conference and without any fingerprints to the member of Congress
who has placed it there, and sometimes it's written very particularly so
nobody but the person who wrote it actually knows what it means, and generally
what it does is it allows for the funding of a pool in a rec center in
somebody's district. Or it might allow for the construction of a library or a
grant to a college. Unfortunately, it also is used frequently to steer
contracts to contractors who are political contributors to members of
Congress. Today--in 2005, there were tens of thousands of earmarks with
scores of billions of dollars.
DAVIES: And there's no enduring record even of which Congressman put this in?
If a citizen wanted to check months later, there's no document or fingerprint
that ties it to the congressperson involved, right?
Mr. STERN: No, and the entire process is completely secretive. It starts in
the caucuses, where the Democrats and Republicans separately decide how much
in earmarks each of their members of their caucus should get. Now,
Cunningham, as a member of Defense Appropriations subcommittee, probably got
about $50 million a year that he could earmark. That was money that he could
dictate where it went. Not just in terms of a program, but also in terms of
the contractor and the contract.
When I first talked with him about this, he said, you know, `Mark, I don't
have anything to do with contracts,' and that's the way it's ostensibly set
up. But in reality, the Potomac River is a very permeable membrane, and every
day thousands of e-mails go across the river from the Capitol to the Pentagon
telling the people in the office of the secretary of defense where they want
that program money going, and generally it's to a supporter.
DAVIES: Now, the congressman at the center of this scandal, Duke Cunningham,
had corrupt relationships with a couple of contractors in particular. Let's
talk about them. One was Brent Wilkes. Tell us what his company did and what
kind of relationship he had with Cunningham.
Mr. STERN: Brent Wilkes grew up in the San Diego area, in the district where
Cunningham represented roughly, North County area, and he was a guy on the
make, coming out of Chula Vista. He was a guy with an eye for making money
and mixing politics and money and business, and what he did is he set up a
company that was actually named after a line item in the defense budget and
he, every year, he just went in and got all the earmarks he could possibly get
for his company. He was fun-loving, by every account. He liked to play
poker. He liked to drink. He liked to carouse. He made use of prostitutes.
And he befriended Cunningham shortly after Cunningham arrived in Washington.
They became, if you will, thick as thieves.
DAVIES: And the service that his company, ACDS, presumably provided was some
complex document scanning, right?
Mr. STERN: Yeah, it was going to help create a paperless Pentagon. I mean,
the idea--and it was attractive during the '90s--was let's take everything,
let's digitize it and let's get rid of all this paper. And one of his first
major contracts was to digitize documents from the Panama Canal, many of them
of absolutely no use whatsoever. Maybe some of them, arguably, of strategic
use if there were ever a conflict around the canal zone, but most of it is
just junk. And that's what he did. He made digital scans. They weren't
just--what they were is they could be manipulated digitally, so they
cost--each scan was four or $5 and when you add it all up, it was millions of
DAVIES: So you've got his company going down to Panama, scanning virtually
tens of thousands of worthless documents at four or $5 a page because a
congressman has decided that, for whatever reason has decided that millions of
dollars need to go to this company.
Mr. STERN: Correct.
DAVIES: Now tell us what Brent Wilkes did for Congressman Cunningham.
Mr. STERN: Brent Wilkes was--first of all, he was a good friend. He took
him to dinner all the time at the Capitol Grill. He visited with him
on--Cunningham had a yacht called "The Kelly C." It was a flat-bottom river
boat, and Brent Wilkes would come and visit him on the boat. As we learned
later, while we were doing the book, he also set up a special account so that
ADCS would provision the boat with all of Cunningham's most expensive and
favored bottles of wine and a laptop and other things to make his life easy.
DAVIES: And there were trips, right? One particularly memorable one to
Hapuna Beach in Hawaii?
Mr. STERN: Yes. That came out in the court records. Cunningham and Wilkes
were just having a really good time at a very expensive resort, and Mr.
Wilkes sent his driver out to get two prostitutes. Meanwhile, they dined on,
of course, a very lavish meal. When the prostitutes arrived, each man went to
a separate room with his prostitute, and the next night Cunningham made the
point of asking for a different prostitute. He wasn't, I guess, particularly
happy with the one he had that first night.
DAVIES: And this has all been verified beyond dispute in the court case?
Mr. STERN: It's in the charging documents. It has not been disputed by
any--by Wilkes or his attorneys, and there is pretty good evidence,
documentary evidence, to back up all of this.
DAVIES: All right. So we have lots and lots of campaign contributions. That
is reported and presumably all legal. But all of these lavish trips, bottles
of wine, outfitting the yacht, is that legal? Is it permissible under
Mr. STERN: No, it's not, and there's more there. I mean, he gave--the
trial--Brent Wilkes will be facing--is going to have a trial beginning in
September. He's been indicted. He's plead not guilty. The trial begins, I
believe, in late September or early October. The crux of the case against him
will be all of these items plus the fact that he gave Cunningham $200,000 in
2002, I believe it was, and that $200,000 now, according to Wilkes, was not a
bribe, but he purchased the boat "The Kelly C." However, there's no record
that he ever purchased "The Kelly C." There was no title. There was no
registration change. Cunningham continued to live on "The Kelly C" as he
always had. And so the prosecutors say that's a complete fiction. That it
simply was a $200,000 bribe.
In addition to that, Brent Wilkes later paid off one of the mortgages on a
house in Rancho Santa Fe, a mansion really, that Cunningham purchased with the
help of his friends. Wilkes was one of the persons to pay off one of the
mortgages on that house. There was a $500,000 mortgage. So they have
calculated $700,000 in bribes, plus all the other gifts and things.
DAVIES: My guest is Marcus Stern. He is the Washington news editor for
Copley News Service. Also co-author of a new book "The Wrong Stuff: The
Extraordinary Saga of Randy `Duke' Cunningham, The Most Corrupt Congressman
Ever Caught." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, we're talking with Marcus Stern. He is
the Washington news editor for Copley News Service and co-author of the book
"The Wrong Stuff," about the scandal surrounding Congressman Duke Cunningham.
The other figure that figured so prominently in this case was another defense
contractor named Mitchell Wade. He owned a company called MZM. Tell us about
him and the contracts that he sought from the government.
Mr. STERN: Mitch Wade came into the picture in about 1998. He was brought
in by Brent Wilkes, because Brent Wilkes' ability to get contracts was fading.
I mean, he was--the Pentagon procurement establishment was beginning to have
questions about whether he was even trying to do these, or pretending to do
these, contracts or the work that he had gotten contracts for. So he
recruited Mitch Wade, who had been in the Pentagon, had clearances, security
clearances. He had people he could get to who had security clearances so he
was very useful for Brent Wilkes, and he became essentially a cut-out. He
would go and get the contract. The contract would go to MZM, his company, and
then what he would do is subcontract all of the profits; the proceeds would go
to Brent Wilkes and his company.
Eventually, Mitch Wade got wise and got greedy, as all men do, and he decided
he simply was going to take Brent Wilkes' place, and so he stepped into, and
he really jacked up the bribery, and he really got himself completely
ingratiated with Mr. Cunningham and started getting his own earmarks. He
went from having no prime contracts in 2002 to having more than 100 million in
DAVIES: All right. Well, let's get to that he gave Congressman Cunningham in
a minute. What services did Mitchell Wade's company presumably provide the
Mr. STERN: It's really not entirely clear. It's not as clear as it was with
Brent Wilkes. In this case, his background was intelligence at the Pentagon,
and so he was getting intelligence contracts. For instance, he was given a
contract to combat IEDs, the improvised explosive devices, the roadside bombs
that were killing so many US soldiers in Iraq, and it's unclear to what extent
he delivered on those contracts. Ostensibly the idea was that he would have
some people in Iraq who would run around and try and gather information after
a roadside bomb attack and try and collate it to get some intelligence. It
wasn't terribly effective way to combat IEDs as it turns out, and it's just,
you know, we've had people who work for him who contacted us after the first
stories were written and who said, `You know, I went to work for the
Counterintelligence Field Activity,' a super secret post 9/11
counterintelligence agency, and they put me over there, MZM sent me over
there, I sat there and I did nothing.'
DAVIES: Right. You described what Mitchell Wade got, he and his company got,
out of this relationship with Duke Cunningham. What did Duke Cunningham get
from Mitchell Wade?
Mr. STERN: Again, what he got was an adoring friend, which I think was
probably very important--it wasn't enough, but it was very important.
Cunningham believed that he and Mitch Wade were like brothers, but he was a
very generous brother. He also would take Cunningham to restaurants. He
would provide him with limousine service. He would provide him with jet
travel, private jet travel, very much like Brent Wilkes did. He copycatted
Brent Wilkes in this regard.
But then he did something that even Brent Wilkes didn't do, although I believe
he seriously thought about it and had offered it to Cunningham back in the
late '90s. Mitch Wade went and purchased a yacht and he put it at the
disposal of Duke Cunningham. In essence, Duke Cunningham took possession of
it. He lived on it. He entertained on it. He drove it. And the only thing
that Mitch Wade really had to do with it was first he bought it, he paid for
it, and secondly, he kept it provisioned.
DAVIES: And then there was the home purchase.
Mr. STERN: Yeah. And there were jet skis. There were other boats.
There--antiques, really very expensive antiques. There was help with buying a
condo. There was also, most famously, his mansion in Rancho Santa Fe,
California. This is a place where people like Bill Gates live, I mean, and
own property. It's not a place where a congressman whose wife is a school
administrator live. But for 18 months, nobody noticed that he was living in
this grand mansion in Rancho Santa Fe and stuffing it full of extraordinarily
expensive antiques, all of this provided by Mitch Wade.
DAVIES: And I just--you've got to tell the story about him going to the
antique store with Mitch Wade's credit card.
Mr. STERN: When Mrs. Cunningham was going to come back to Washington to
serve in the Education Department--and bear in mind this is a time when
Cunningham was on the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, so he was
overseeing the budget of the Education Department at a time when it hired her
as a deputy secretary--they needed a place for her to stay. She wasn't going
to stay on "The Kelly C." I mean, she wasn't going to rock on a boat on the
Potomac. So they bought a penthouse condominium in Arlington overlooking the
Pentagon--I'm sorry, overlooking--well, the Pentagon and Washington. So they
needed furnishings for it. Mitch Wade took Congressman Cunningham to his
favorite antique dealer, and just week after week they would go and they would
buy, they would shop. And they shopped with impunity. And Congressman
Cunningham would disappear when it was time to pay the bill and Mitch Wade
would actually pull out his MZM credit card and pay for these furnishings.
DAVIES: So the congressman gets hundreds of thousands in gifts, and the
contractor gets tens of millions in government work?
Mr. STERN: Yes.
DAVIES: Marcus Stern is the Washington news editor for Copley News Service.
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Our
guest, journalist Marcus Stern, broke the story in June 2005 that led to the
prosecution of California Congressman Duke Cunningham on corruption charges.
Stern and co-authors Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath and George Condon won the
Pulitzer Prize last year. Their new book about the Cunningham scandal is
called "The Wrong Stuff." Stern said prosecutors found that defense
contractors Cunningham had gotten contracts for had plied him with food,
drink, expensive antiques, cash, a yacht, even prostitutes.
Well, none of this disgraceful conduct might ever have been known if it were
not for a humble journalist, meaning yourself, who did this story in the San
Diego Union-Tribune in June 2005. Tell us how you got this story.
Mr. STERN: Well, it was an accident, in some respects. I was trying to find
out why Congressman Cunningham had taken two trips to Saudi Arabia. That's a
question I still don't have an answer for, but at some point I decided to look
at his assets, take a look to see if he'd upgraded his living accommodations
or what other assets he might have that are on record, and I was surprised to
find that he had purchased, 18 months earlier, a $2.55 million mansion in
Rancho Santa Fe, California. This is not a neighborhood where
congresspeople--members of Congress or as, in the case of his wife, a school
administrator, lived. I mean, this was a place for multimillionaires and
billionaires. So I tried to figure out how he could have done that, made that
huge leap. And I went to see what he did with his old house, the house he had
in Del Mar Heights. He had purchased it in 1988 for $435,000, and I noticed
that just before he bought the Rancho Santa Fe house, he sold it for $1.67
million, which is a very good profit and might possibly have put him in a
position to buy that mansion in Rancho Santa Fe.
But then I noticed something else. I noticed that the person who bought the
Del Mar house, who had paid 1.675 million for it, was not a human being, but
it was a corporation It was called 1523 New Hampshire Avenue, Inc. and I
recognized that as possibly a Washington address. So I then went to see what
this company was and I found it registered in the state of Nevada to a man
named Mitch Wade, a name I did not know. But I noticed also
another--something else had popped up on the search, and it was another
company that Mitch Wade owned and that was licensed in Nevada, and it was
called MZM, Inc. And when I googled MZM, Inc., and looked at its corporate
Web site I saw it was headquartered at 1523 New Hampshire Avenue, Inc. and I
also saw that between 2000 and 2002 that MZM, Inc. had no prime contracts,
had never had a prime contract, and then in the time frame of the sale had
suddenly exploded with defense prime contracts and had more than 100 million
of them, $100 million worth of them. So that's a pretty big leap and a pretty
suspicious timing and coincidence.
I then looked to see what Mr. Wade did with the house he purchased from the
congressman, and I saw he put it right back on the market for roughly the same
price, and it's languished in the San Diego housing market, which was sizzling
at the time and eventually sold eight months later for $700,000 less. So it
was pretty clear to me at that point that Mr. Wade, a defense contractor, had
taken at least a $700,000 loss on this house.
DAVIES: So you had a property transaction which appeared to put $700,000 in
the pocket of a congressman at the expense of a defense contractor?
Mr. STERN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: So now you have to figure out if this particular defense contractor
and this particular congressman are connected. What did you do next?
Mr. STERN: OK. Well, the first thing I had to do was establish that, first
of all, the house was overvalued, and that required an appraisal, and we tried
to get an appraisal from appraisers in San Diego, and the first one who said
he would do it and sent us the comps, then turned around and did not provide
us with the appraisal. We tried to get--he wouldn't tell us why he wouldn't.
We tried to get another appraiser, who also, as soon as they heard the
address, turned us down. And then a third one. And when we really pushed the
third one why they wouldn't do it, they said they were advised by their
association in Sacramento not to do this. So we essentially had to do the
appraisal ourselves through an inspection, in San Diego, one of our employees
went there and with the comps that we had, and we were pretty satisfied that,
clearly, this was--the price of $1.675 million that Wade paid to Cunningham
was seriously overvalued.
At that point, I needed to establish that Cunningham actually did something in
return, quid pro quo, to help Mitch Wade, and that required a conversation
with Cunningham. And so I had to talk to Cunningham and find out from him if
he had ever done anything to help Mitch Wade get those contracts.
DAVIES: So you called Congressman Cunningham?
Mr. STERN: I did. And he was very nice, he called me back. It was a very
nice conversation, but during the course of it--and he immediately defended
everything he did as completely appropriate and aboveboard, but at one point
he acknowledged that he had advocated on behalf of Mr. Wade for defense
contracts, but he said it was because MZM was very good at what they did and
it was the right thing to do and the best thing for the country, and that
there was nothing wrong with what he did. I knew, at that point, that he had
just acknowledged, he'd just conceded that he had provided a quid pro quo,
however he wanted to dress it up.
DAVIES: So the result was the story on the front page of the San Diego
Union-Tribune, which said that a congressman had engaged in this property
transaction with a defense contractor he had helped, and the congressman had
profited to the tune of $700,000. This, I gather, was noticed by federal
Mr. STERN: It was. I mean, remarkably, within a week, there were grand jury
subpoenas being issued, and everything moved quite quickly. Subpoenas usually
take a little while. You might have the grand jury taking up the matter
pretty quickly, but the issuance of the subpoenas was pretty remarkably brisk
and within, you know--this was on June 12th the story ran, and on July 1st,
they did their first raids of Cunningham's properties and Wade's properties
and "The Dukester," the yacht that Cunningham was living on, thanks to the
good graces of the defense contractor. So the investigators and the
prosecutors moved at lightning speed on this. It was pretty remarkable.
Cunningham went into seclusion. I mean, he was not making any public
statements for the first 11 days. He just didn't say a thing. Now, as a
reporter, I'm used to--you know, a story like this would usually draw blowback
from the person it's about. I expected Cunningham to come out swinging and
denying and being very blustery, and yet he was silent. It was the first
indication that something was not right. The story was good, but something
was not right on his end, and what we found out was there was just so much
more corruption there than I had imagined.
DAVIES: Marcus Stern is the Washington news editor for Copley News Service.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Our guest is journalist Marcus Stern. He's co-authored a new book
about the scandal involving former Congressman Duke Cunningham. It's called
"The Wrong Stuff."
One of the interesting things about this story is that, once your story broke,
other newspapers and bloggers got involved. Do you think the modern area of
electronic and online journalism pushed this story faster than it otherwise
would have gone?
Mr. STERN: Yeah. I think that frequently people write very good stories
that get ignored because they weren't written by the New York Times or they
weren't written by The Washington Post or the LA Times or The Wall Street
Journal. And that would have no doubt been the case here, it would have just
quietly gone away. But what happened is, you have bloggers now, and they are
amplifiers; they're giant amplifiers. And in this case, that's exactly what
happened. The blogs amplified it, and not only did they amplify it, but they
jumped in and started doing a lot of records checks and citizen journalists
started doing a lot of records checks, and so you had the bloggers, the blog
readers, you had people who read the newspaper and had access to e-mail and to
databases, were all beginning to look at campaign finance regards and finance
disclosure forms, and it was a bit of a new media storm.
DAVIES: You know, one of the other interesting things about this. When you
were describing why you so energetically looked at Congressman Cunningham's
assets, was you said you were pretty sure he was on the make. You wouldn't
have done this for just any congressman. There was something you smelled here
Mr. STERN: Yeah. It's perhaps a little bit of a prologue. I had a pretty
good read on Cunningham, and partly because seven or eight years earlier I had
a friend who called me, a female staffer on the Hill and she said, `I've got
to tell you what--' she called up in the morning and said, `I've got to tell
you about last night.' I said, `OK. Please do.' And then she proceeded to
tell me that she and another female staffer had gone to the Capitol Grill,
which is near the Capitol and a place where lobbyist and lawmakers like to
mingle, and they ended sitting at Duke Cunningham's table. He was having
dinner there with the defense lobbyist, and the lobbyist got up and left
Cunningham with the ladies.
Then Cunningham proceeded to do, as he so often did, tell them all about his
exploits over the skies of North Vietnam and his status as a war hero and then
invited them back to his boat, then the "The Kelly C," which was at the
Gangplank Marina on the southwest waterfront not far from the restaurant. He
went back, they followed in a separate car. They got there 15 or 20 minutes
after he did, and by the time they walked on the boat, he had switched into
pajama bottoms and a turtleneck shirt, and the boat as aglow with only two
lava lamps and candles, and there was champagne that had been
chilling--perhaps from the night before, I guess--and the proceeded to drink
the champagne and while away the hours.
And while there was a certain amount of flirtation, there was nothing more
than that, except that they---he told them a remarkable story. He said that
he had his eye on another boat in the marina, a more expensive boat, and that
a contractor had offered to buy it for him and he didn't think that would
work, that wouldn't look good. That would not sail, so to speak. So he said
the contractor offered to buy it and let him live on it, sort of rent free, or
at a very nominal cost, and he still was a little concerned about that
arrangement. But you know, he was still, it was still something he really
wanted but, you know, his moral fiber was holding for the moment. And they
told me some other things he said during the course of the evening along those
And so actually, it was kind of--it may have looked silly but I had a golden
retriever at the time and I lived on Capitol Hill, and I would go down to the
waterfront and I would walk my golden retriever along the waterfront and watch
"The Kelly C" and I was just thinking there had to be a story there. I
started checking property records then, and I just--it just didn't--nothing
happened. It just didn't come together, so I forgot about it until all those
The irony here is that, you know, I did the story on the house, but I
completely forgot about the boat. And several days after I did the house
story, The North County Times, a competitor of The Union-Tribune, broke the
story on the fact that Mitch Wade had provided "The Dukester " for Congressman
Cunningham. And, you know, that was quite a shock for me. I mean, here was a
reporter, Will Bennett, from the North County Times who was, I think, two
weeks on the political beat and he'd beat me on a story that I had a
seven-year head start on, so...
DAVIES: What happens is the FBI gets all kinds of evidence. Eventually
Mitchell Wade, the corrupt contractor, strikes an arrangement with the
prosecutor, pleads guilty, gives all kinds of evidence on Cunningham, and he
eventually pleads guilty and is sentenced to eight years, four months, the
longest sentence ever given to a member of Congress. But, you know, you made
the point in this book that it isn't just the story about some corrupt people.
It's about something wrong with the way the government functions. To what
extent has Congress addressed the weaknesses that encourage this kind of
corruption, earmarks? What's been done to bring some accountability to the
Mr. STERN: One of the main inquiries of this book was to find out whether
Duke Cunningham had arrived in Washington already with his flaws and with his
greed, or whether he was--and had arrived warped, or whether he was warped by
Washington and by Washington's ways. And the reason that's crucial is because
all of his colleagues say they had no idea that this was going on, that he was
enriching himself this way, and that it was one bad apple. If we--and so I
think what we concluded is that Cunningham arrived in Washington with some
serious character flaws but the invitation of earmarks was just too much for
him and, I'm sure, has been too much for others. It is just an invitation to
Congress itself has changed hands, from the Republicans who exploited earmarks
terrifically to Democrats, who now may exploit earmarks terrifically. What
they've done so far is pass administrative rules saying if a member of
Congress is going to have an earmark, the member of Congress must put their
name next to that earmark. It's not going to make a huge difference in the
way the game is played.
DAVIES: What about the Ethics Committee, which has been basically asleep for
years and years while these things happened?
Mr. STERN: There's no indication that they're going to be any tougher under
Democrats than they were under Republicans. There was sort of a peace accord
reached back in the '90s. You had a situation where they were both
drinking--Democrats and Republicans, incumbents--were drinking from the same
well and they essentially said to each other, `Let's not spit in it.' In many
ways, the system is designed for incumbency protection, whether you're a
Democrat or you're a Republican.
DAVIES: Well, Marcus Stern, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. STERN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Marcus Stern is the Washington news editor for Copley News Service.
His book with Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath and George Condon is called "The
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Review: David Edelstein reviews the film "Bug"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Bug is a new psycho thriller based on the play by Tracy Letts. It stars
Ashley Judd and is directed by William Friedken. Film critic David Edelstein
has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
As a film critic, I don't get to the theater enough, and I miss the heightened
language and the use of design as metaphor. As in Beckett's "Endgame," in
which characters are immobilized in trash cans to symbolize the human
condition. But most movies based on stage plays seem, well, stage-y, or else
they're opened out in ways that dilute the poetic compression that makes them
great theater. That's why I love "Bug." It has that compression, that feeling
of being trapped in real time with live people, with their backs against the
wall. But it's also moody and expansive, a real movie. It's a potent mix.
"Bug" is directed by William Friedken, from a play by Tracy Letts, of
Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. It centers on a shared madness of two lonely
misfits who build a sanctuary and then bug out, in this case literally.
Ashley Judd plays Agnes White, a forlorn divorcee who lives in a rustic
Oklahoma motel called, evocatively, Rustic Motel. Her phone rings night and
day, but no one speaks. Are the calls from her ex, just out on parole? Or do
they have something to do with a helicopter that circles the motel?
By and by, her lesbian friend, played by Lynn Collins, brings over a
soft-spoken fellow who says he's an Iraq war vet: Peter Evans, played by
Michael Shannon. Alone with Agnes, he muses that people think he's strange.
Not surprisingly, since he speaks in a haunted monotone and has glassy eyes.
When Peter delivers a quiet rant about the omnipresent, mind-altering hum of
machines, Agnes says it sounds crazy, but adds that she likes the way he
talks. She likes having a man around, in part, to protect her against her
violent ex, played by Harry Connick Jr. She and Peter make tender love, but
when they wake, he says he sees something on his pillow.
(Soundbite of "Bug")
Mr. MICHAEL SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) There.
Ms. ASHLEY JUDD: (as Agnes White) What?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) It's really small.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) I guess. What is that?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) Like an aphid?
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) An aphid?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) Mm, an aphid. It's like--mm...
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) A bedbug?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) No. Well, yeah, kind of. More like a louse.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) Louse?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) Not...
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) Oh, lice.
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) Not like head lice. More like plant lice.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) Oh, like a termite.
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) No, that's more like a...(unintelligible).
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) (Unintelligible).
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) Like a termite.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) You mean tick?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) No, a tick's like a flea.
A...(unintelligible)...like a termite.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) What's a bedbug like?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) A bedbug.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) No, I mean, what is a bedbug?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) A bedbug.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) I thought that was a nickname.
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) This is an aphid.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) Plant lice.
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) I think so.
Ms. JUDD: (as Agnes White) Can they bite?
Mr. SHANNON: (as Peter Evans) This one sure did.
(End of soundbite)
EDELSTEIN: He knows his bugs, that's for sure. Is the escalating infestation
real? Is Peter truly infected, or a delusional paranoic? Slowly, this
nondescript motel room becomes a forest of flypaper strips and tinfoil and a
thicket of psychoses. And what began as kitchen sink naturalism becomes
increasingly out of this world.
I'm not sure what "Bug" adds up to, but line by line, beat by beat, it's
gripping. Letts has good feelers for the anxieties that live in the nether
reaches of our imagination. Conspiracy theories that blossom into obsessions,
obsessions that flare into violence. He has a gift for bumping realism into
surrealism with a well-placed nudge. And for dialogue that drives his actors
into each other's well-guarded personal space.
Friedken puts you right in the middle of the melee. I'm amazed at how the
cold-fish director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" manages to
get inside this play, preserving its theatricality, yet making it a live-wire
Michael Shannon played Peter on stage for years, off and on, and with his
sunken demeanor, he's like a despondent golem. He's superb, but "Bug" belongs
to Ashley Judd, maybe the most unsung great actress in American movies. She
looks convincingly dissipated, puffy, used up, yet still very beautiful. Her
Agnes seems to welcome the dementia that envelops her. Watching her, I
thought of Abu Ghraib poster girl Lynndie England, a not-too-bright woman who
also got sucked into her controlling boyfriend's universe, who became a
character in someone else's sick fantasy.
Ads for "Bug" make it seem like a conventional horror movie. That might get
people into the seats, but I bet 99 percent of those who go in expecting gooey
fun with the babe from "Kiss the Girls" are going to riot in the aisles.
Don't be surprised if you hear bad word of mouth. But if you're prepared for
a ripping psychodrama, a coup de theater on the big screen, I promise "Bug"
will get under your skin.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
Coming up, from shoeshine man to international star. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Milo Miles reviews Ibrahim Ferrer's "Mi Sueno"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Ibrahim Ferrer was 69 years old, retired from professional singing and shining
shoes on the streets of Havana, when he was tapped to perform on the "Buena
Vista Social Club" album. That album became one of the biggest world music
hit records since Paul Simon's "Graceland." In August 2005, Ferrer passed away
while at work on his life-long dream, a whole album of the romantic ballads
known as "boleros." He was 78. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of
Ferrer's final work "Mi Sueno."
MILO MILES reporting:
When the "Buena Vista Social Club" album came out in 1996, it became a
surprise success by tapping into a popular nostalgic fantasy that a lot of
people didn't realize they had. it was the dream of a smoky night club in old
Havana, filled with songs that were dignified but sensual, at once classy and
down to earth. None of the performers came to incarnate the fantasy more than
Ibrahim Ferrer. For one thing, he looked the part, with his exquisitely
weathered features and carefully rakish beret. But mostly he had a voice made
for old-timey music, frail but with invincible passion. What Ferrer lacked
for in vocal muscle he made up with world weary slyness.
(Soundbite of Ibrahim Ferrer singing in foreign language)
MILES: Yet Ferrer was the most unlikely breakout star of the Buena Vista
sessions. For the other performers, the hit album ushered in a late-life
second act. But Ferrer had not been particularly well known outside, or even
inside, of Cuba. He was a true discovery. Orphaned at the age of 12, he
formed his first musical group the next year with his cousin. In his youth,
he never sang the ballads that became his signature in his old age.
It's easy to overdo the dignity while doing slow tunes, and sometimes on his
earlier solo albums, Ferrer could sound too formal, even a bit stiff. His
posthumous "Mi Sueno" turns what could have been a liability into a surprise
plus. Three weeks before "Mi Sueno" was to be finished, Ferrer passed away,
asking on his deathbed for the album to go forward. As a result, four of the
tracks use high-quality vocal demos. But there's a refreshing demo-style
looseness to all of Ferrer's performances here. If his other records are from
the main stage of the smoky night club, "Mi Sueno" is from the after hours
(Soundbite of Ibrahim Ferrer singing in foreign language)
MILES: "Mi Sueno" ends with the delightful, almost defiant song "Alma Libre,"
`free spirit.' Ibrahim Ferrer says goodbye with these lines: "If I am loved,
I know how to love. If I am forgotten, I know how to forget." There's that
worldliness again. Ferrer's career delivers a message that should be loved
and not forgotten: It's never too late.
DAVIES: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Ibrahim Ferrer's final album
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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