Former US representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who collected US$2.4 million in homes, yachts, antique furnishings and other bribes on a scale unparalleled in the history of Congress, was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison, the longest term meted out to a congressman in decades.
Cunningham, who resigned from Congress in disgrace last year, was spared the 10-year maximum on Friday by US District Judge Larry Burns but was immediately taken into custody. He also was ordered to pay US$1.8 million in restitution for back taxes and forfeit US$1.85 million in valuables he received.
Cunningham accepted money and gifts including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and US$40,000 Persian rugs from defense contractors and others in exchange for steering government contracts their way and other favors.
Cunningham pleaded guilty on Nov. 28 to tax evasion and a conspiracy involving four others. The plea came amid a series of Republican scandals: Representative Tom DeLay of Texas had to step down as majority leader after he was indicted in a campaign finance case; a stock sale by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being looked at by regulators; and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff was indicted in the CIA leak case. The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff could ensnare even more members of Congress.
Federal prosecutors sought the 10-year maximum and Cunningham's attorneys asked for mercy, but the former congressman, 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.
Cunningham's attorney Lee Blalack asked for six years for the former Navy "Top Gun" flight instructor and Vietnam War flying ace.
Much thinner than when he pleaded guilty in November -- he said he has gone from 119.25kg to 78.75kg since June -- Cunningham had asked to see his 91-year-old mother one last time before going to prison, but was denied.
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 Beuttler.
The longest term meted out to congressmen in the past four decades had been eight years, handed to former Representative James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, in 2002 for taking payoffs, and to former Representative Mario Biaggi, a New York Democrat, in 1988 for extorting nearly US$2 million from a defense contractor.