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Crooks like them What did the feds know and when did they know it? That Nixon-era catchphrase might also apply to the ongoing intrigue enveloping the end stage of the Randy "Duke" Cunningham bribery scandal. As most locals know by now, the public side of Cunningham's criminal saga was kicked off last June 12 by a Copley News Service story in the Union-Tribune that traced how a Washington-based defense contractor had laundered money to the congressman by purchasing his Del Mar house at an inflated price. Four days later, the Justice Department said it was opening an investigation. Within weeks it became obvious that Cunningham had been on the take for years, and the feds wrapped up the case with lightning speed. Now comes a report in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill daily, raising questions about how long before the U-T story appeared the government knew of Cunningham's illegal wheeling and dealing.

According to Roll Call, in mid-2000 the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, a Pentagon agency, began a criminal investigation into Cunningham's dealings with Brent Wilkes, the Poway defense contractor identified as a coconspirator in the case that sent Cunningham to prison for eight years and four months. The results, including the fact that Cunningham had taken his first bribe in May 2000, were referred for prosecution to Gregory Vega, then U.S. attorney in San Diego, but he took no action. "For what reason he declined to prosecute, I don't know," Roll Call quoted Gary Comerford, a spokesman for the Defense Department Inspector General's office as saying. Vega, who was U.S. attorney here from May 1999 to June 2001 and now works for the influential downtown law and lobbying firm of Seltzer Caplan, declined to comment.

Roll Call reported that Debra Hartman, a spokeswoman for Carol Lam, the current U.S. attorney who has credited the U-T with ferreting out the Cunningham story, disputed Comerford's version of events but wouldn't elaborate. "The Department of Defense agrees that we have handled all matters relating to this case appropriately," she was quoted as saying.

This isn't the first time it's been suggested that Vega was less than diligent in going after well-connected white-collar miscreants during his time as U.S. attorney. Vega gave Padres owner John Moores a pass in 2001 after an extensive federal investigation of Moores's gift of discount stock deals, airplane tickets, car usage, and other gratuities to city councilwoman Valerie Stallings while she was casting votes in favor of his taxpayer-subsidized ballpark. Instead of indicting Moores, Vega turned the case over to district attorney Paul Pfingst, who allowed Stallings to plead guilty in state court to misdemeanor charges of receiving gifts from the team owner. She was forced to resign and pay a $10,000 fine but did no jail time. Top local feds, including then-FBI bureau chief Bill Gore, now second-in-command to Sheriff Bill Kolender, took the rare step of going public to defend their kid-glove treatment of Moores. "Given Stallings' predisposition to favor the ballpark anyway, the evidence to support a bribery charge just wasn't there," he insisted.

Meanwhile, the lingering question over why three top North County biotech honchos lined up to make campaign contributions to Cunningham almost a month after his malfeasance in office came to light seems to have an answer. The Burnham Institute's Robert Liddington and John Reed, along with Invitrogen's Gregory Lucier, kicked in a total of $2500 in the first week of July, cash that was later paid to Cunningham's defense lawyers. As it turns out, in May of last year Cunningham, a prostate cancer victim, had tearfully reversed his long-standing opposition to stem-cell research and subsequently became a poster boy for members of the GOP who opposed George W. Bush's ban on such activity.

Private pleasures Chargers owner

Alex Spanos and his A.G. Spanos Companies, which owns a small fleet of executive jets, turn up as number 126 on a new list of those furnishing "political use of corporate aircraft" to federal officials from 2001 through 2005. On June 7 of last year, Spanos spent $3307 for providing a flight for the Republican National Committee. According to the survey, Qualcomm, ranked 45 on the list, booked $17,488 of time aboard its own executive jet to ferry members of the Republican National Committee to various destinations. The company gave Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry a ride worth $630 on January 13, 2003. Booze and snuff maker UST, Inc., topped the list with $379,039 worth of free flights for politicos, including GOP congressman Tom DeLay and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The list was produced by PoliticalMoneyLine, a Washington, D.C., provider of campaign-finance information.

Legacy Matthew Malone, the genial Bostonian brought west by Alan Bersin to quarterback his controversial school-reform agenda, has returned home to face similar turmoil, reports the Boston Globe. Since becoming superintendent of the Swampscott public schools last year, Malone has turned into a target for parents and teachers who claim he doesn't communicate well. "You've got a high school that's in disarray, the teachers are very unhappy, and I believe it's because of a lack of leadership from the superintendent," dissident Richard Feinberg told the paper. "There's a feeling that he's on a rudderless boat." Among Malone's alleged mismoves: firing a popular baseball coach and bringing in a tough-love principal.

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