A Pair of Aces
3 Mar 05//1750 PST
A federal judge sentenced Duke Cunningham to 8 1/2 years in prison for tax evasion and bribery. The judge also denied a request by the disgraced former Congressman to see his 91-year-old mother before being sent to prison. The sentence seems about right, given the gravity of Cunningham's crimes. And don't feel too sorry for the "Duke." With good behavior, he'll be out in about five years, his Congressional pension intact (and likely) his military pension as well. The Navy has been strangely silent on the status of Cunningham's pension.
As a retired Commander, Cunningham received an annual pension of more than $30,000 a year. As we've noted before, federal rules normally mandate the loss of a military pension for personnel convicted on felony charges, with some exceptions. The families of convicted spies Robert Hanssen and Brian Reagan still receive their FBI and Air Force pensions, respectively. In both cases, officials determined that the wives of Hanssen and Reagan had no other income sources, and played no role in their crimes. Cunningham's wife has reportedly left him (funny, but she was happy to hang around when all that cash and gifts were rolling in), and it's possible that the Navy may "give" the pension to her, following the precedent of the Hanssen and Reagan cases.
We're still waiting for word on the prison sentence that former California Congressman (and Vietnam War flying ace) Randy "Duke" Cunningham will receive for his bribery and corruption conviction. Cunningham pleaded guility last November to tax evasion and conspiracy charges, after an investigation revealed that he had accepted millions of dollars in bribes and gifts from defense contractors and others, for steering government contracts their way. According to court evidence, Cunningham even created a bribery "scale," requiring specific gifts or cash payments for certain types of favors. A federal judge is expected to impose Cunningham's sentence later today.
Before being elected to Congress nearly 20 years ago, Cunningham was best know as one of only two Navy flyers who became aces in Vietnam (the other was Cunningham's F-4 backseater, Lt Willie Driscoll). I never met Cunningham, but I've met (and spent a little time) with two of the three Air Force aces from Vietnam, Retired Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, and retired Colonel Charles DeBellevue. I found both to be outstanding officers and true gentlemen, who wore the mantle of "fighter ace" with dignity and class. Cunningham shot down five enemy MiGs over North Vietnam, but he is not in the same league as Ritchie, DeBellevue, Driscoll, and retired Air Force Colonel Jeffrey Feinstein, the "other" Air Force ace from Vietnam.
As for Cunningham, I hope the judge throws the book at him. And one more thing: is the Navy going to take away his pension as a retired Commander? Under current law, military retirees normally lose their pensions after receiving a federal felony conviction. If he needs some cash, let him sell that Rolls-Royce and fancy Persian rugs that he accepted as bribes.
Cunningham's fall from grace is a sad counterpoint to the exemplary life of WWII ace, Brigadier General Robert L. Scott. who passed away earlier this week at the age of 96. As a member of Claire Chennault's famed "Flying Tigers" in China during the war, Scott shot down at least 13 enemy aircraft (shortages of gun cameras and film kept him from getting credit for at least 10 other aerial victories). Scott later recounted his experiences in a best-selling book "God is My Co-Pilot," which was made into a successful film. Not bad for a guy who was supposedly "too old" to be a fighter pilot when the U.S. entered WWII.
A truly remarkable man, Scott remained active until nearly the end of his life. He was still fit enough to fly jet fighters in his late 70s, and carried the Olympic torch as part of the relay for the 1996 Atlanta games--at the age of 86. General Scott was also a long-time volunteer and "legend in residence" at the air museum at Robins AFB, Georgia. He will be missed.