Tomorrow, Randy “Duke” Cunningham will go to court and find out where he'll spend the next part of his life.
The safe bet is federal prison, punishment for taking $2.4 million in bribes as a U.S. congressman.
In the last week of November, Cunningham pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges in connection with efforts to steer government work to defense contractors. The North County Republican also resigned from the House of Representatives, leaving a post he was first elected to in 1990.
The ace fighter pilot traded the hall of fame for the wall of shame. He broke the law, violated public trust, lied and cheated.
He's said little in public, including declining an interview for this story through his attorney. Still, the statement Cunningham read following his admission in late November suggests a change of heart after months of denial.
“I cannot undo what I have done,” he said in that statement. “But I can atone. I am now almost 65 years old and, as I enter the twilight of my life, I intend to use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends.”
Since he brought it up, here are some thoughts about making amends from folks who know a thing or two about falling from grace.
Step one: Listen
“He needs to hear what people are saying,” says Pearl Hartz, founder of the San Diego Restorative Justice Mediation Program.
A retired schoolteacher and counselor, Hartz and her volunteer mediators help reconcile victims and juvenile offenders.
This might be difficult behind bars, but Hartz suggests Cunningham invite about 20 members of the public – representatives of various groups, perhaps – and sit in a circle with them and a facilitator. Let them tell of the consequences of his votes.
“The bottom line is that direct responsibility and accountability taking,” Hartz says.
Those people also might suggest how he can make amends. Together, they could come up with a plan to atone – and forgive.
“I just believe it could be a cleansing kind of thing for Cunningham and it would show the whole country that we can forgive,” she says.
He might also want to listen to spiritual advisors. On his congressional biography, he lists himself as Christian, although he doesn't specify a church. He could turn to Prison Fellowship Ministries, which offers all sorts of Christian programs amid incarceration. He may even know its founder: Chuck Colson, who served his own prison sentence for Watergate transgressions.
And don't rule out talking with an ethicist or two or three.
“People in ethics are able to articulate standards,” says Robert Audi, who teaches business ethics and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
Ethicists help people recognize the unexploded mines planted in life's fields of gray. Just because something is technically legal, for example, doesn't make it morally acceptable.
Step two: Teachable moment
Cunningham should think about writing a book or a magazine article, or giving an interview, to talk about how he gave in to temptation, says Audi.
“Certainly, he could tell his story in a way that would help other people avoid the mistakes that he made,” he adds. And don't be whitewashing that story. “That would be the opposite of atonement.”
Pastor Barry Minkow likes this teachable-moment idea so much that he suggests it come with a get-out-of-jail-free card.
“I wouldn't put him in prison at all,” says Minkow, who is senior pastor of Community Bible Church in San Diego. “I'd put him on the speaking circuit.”
Specifically, Minkow thinks Cunningham ought to meet face-to-face with every single member of Congress to share his wrongdoing and its consequences.
Besides being an evangelical minister, Minkow is an ex-con. He went to prison in the 1980s for scamming investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Minkow found God in his cell and began studying for the ministry.
In his spare time now, Minkow helps the FBI bust other scammers. His activities earned him a letter of commendation last year from the FBI, which cited his assistance on 13 cases. Last month, Minkow added another notch when a New Jersey confidence man was sentenced to prison.
“What Mr. Cunningham learned is what I learned: I wanted to do what was right, but I was prepared to do what was wrong,” says Minkow. “I think that is a message that Mr. Cunningham could convey with so much credibility.”
Minkow's motto: Failure doesn't have to be final. He wants to say the same to the failed former congressman.
Step three: Reparation
All that money and gifts Cunningham received? He should pay them back. Not to the lobbyists, but to the real victims: the public who trusted him and the government he lied to.
Let's say Cunningham is given a whopping book contract. Should he be able to profit from wrongdoing?
“It is permissible for him to write with the idea of making a profit, but the resolution to atone, and even secularly to make reparations, would surely require that the profit be shared or even given over entirely to the causes he embraces,” says Audi, the ethics teacher.
He could, for example, give gifts that would benefit the public good, such as to a public library or performing arts center or even to schools for scholarships.
Reparations are a must, agrees Minkow. He points to the New Testament story about a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus. After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus repented for his sins and promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he cheated four times that amount.
Step four: Comeback trail
Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting.
Audi thinks Colson, the ex-con and Prison Fellowship founder, is an example of that. He's done wonders with his ministry – in 1993, Colson won the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion – but he has not returned to politics.
“Nothing prevents him from being an advocate for the right,” says Audi of Cunningham's post-prison future. “Minimally, he could earn a leadership role of advocacy. But that is very different from a position of political power.”
Besides, the public doesn't know if Cunningham's regrets will amount to more than the humiliation of getting caught.
“Momentary repentence does not add up to long-term penitence,” Audi adds.
Bruce Armstrong, a former Cunningham supporter from Vista who now lives in Fresno, said he felt cheated and angry when he heard of the wrongdoing. Armstrong lashed out by blasting him on his blog. Now, however, he's feeling more charitable toward one of the most highly decorated Navy pilots of the Vietnam War.
“I think he can still get a lot of his credibility back based on his past experience and what he chooses to do in the future,” says Armstrong.
For instance, he could help with veterans causes and military issues when he gets out of prison.
But Armstrong warns that Cunningham shouldn't try to use his war hero status to escape punishment tomorrow. “If he tried to use his previous life to avoid his responsibility, that would cast doubt on his whole veracity.”
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