Sunday, July 23, 2006

Classified Bills a Refuge for Mischief

WASHINGTON - Convicted congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a new study says, took advantage of secrecy and badgered congressional aides to help slip items into classified bills that would benefit him and his associates.

That finding comes from Michael Stern, an outside investigator hired by the House Intelligence Committee to look into how Cunningham carried out his scheme. Stern is working with the committee to fix vulnerabilities in the way top-secret legislation is written, said congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee still is being briefed on Stern's findings.

Cunningham's case puts a stark spotlight on the oversight of classified - or "black" - budgets. Unlike legislation dealing with social and economic issues, intelligence bills and parts of defense bills are written in private, in the name of national security.

That means it is up to members of Congress and select aides with security clearances to ensure that legislation is appropriate.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and the top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, took the unusual step of hiring Stern to investigative how Cunningham used his seat on the committee to influence legislation for his own enrichment.

Federal prosecutors found that Cunningham accepted $2.4 million in bribes, including payments for a mansion, a Rolls-Royce and a 65-foot yacht, in return for steering defense and intelligence contracts to certain companies. Cunningham pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

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