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Lawmaker used rules on secrecy to gain edge

WASHINGTON -- Randy ``Duke" Cunningham, the imprisoned former California congressman, took advantage of secrecy and badgered congressional aides to help slip items into classified bills that would benefit him and his associates, an independent inquiry has reported.

The finding was issued by Michael Stern, an outside investigator hired by the House Intelligence Committee to look into how Cunningham carried out the 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 has put a spotlight on the oversight of classified budgets. Unlike legislation dealing with social and economic issues, intelligence bills and parts of military bills are written in private, in the name of national security. That means it is up to members of Congress and aides with security clearances to ensure that legislation is appropriate.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, and the top Democrat, Representative Jane Harman of California, took the unusual step of hiring Stern to investigate how Cunningham, a Republican in a Republican district near San Diego, used his seat on the committee to influence legislation for his enrichment.

Federal prosecutors have 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.

Stern has told the committee that Cunningham's efforts to steer business to friends and associates were far worse in the spending bills written by the House Appropriations Committee than those written by the House Intelligence Committee, congressional officials say.

But the intelligence panel that draws up the blueprint for spending by the government's spy agencies was not immune.

Hoekstra said that Stern, as a final step, wants to interview Cunningham in prison to find out more about how he influenced the system. The Justice Department is resisting because it has other potential prosecutions pending in the case, so Hoekstra is considering subpoenaing Cunningham.

Hoekstra said he still has questions about how much Cunningham relied on legislation and how much he bullied people at the Pentagon to direct money to certain contractors. ``We clearly see that he tried to use the committee to do bad things," Hoekstra said in an interview.

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