Saturday, December 10, 2005

Good Journalism

The question of who outed Fomer Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham has circulated since the initial article about his real estate dealings was published. Was Duke sold out by a Republican rival? Did the party itself leak the story to get it out of the way before the 2006 election cycle might endanger the Republican hold on the 50th District.

Thanks to this link from TPM (via the Washington Monthly), the journalist who broke the Cunningham story explains how it was an understanding of people and block and tackle journalism that discovered the facts and put the pieces together.

Marcus Stern shared his insight into how he put the Cunningham story together in an interview in the San Diego City Beat.

"Stern said Cunningham’s two trips to the Saudi Kingdom in 2004 came to his attention after a watchdog group published a list of members of Congress who had taken trips paid for by special interests. Cunningham’s junkets—worth more than $10,000 each—were funded by Ziyad Abduljawad, chairman of a San Diego-based real-estate company.

But it wasn’t Cunningham’s travels so much as his well publicized explanations for them—to “promote discourse and better relations” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—that sparked Stern’s curiosity.

“Before I went into journalism, I worked in psychiatry and I learned there not to listen to what people say but to look at what they do,” he said. “The same is true with politicians. I’ve learned to pay little attention to what the say but watch very closely what they do.”

In the case of Cunningham, Stern remembers an incident he witnessed in 1996 between Duke and Congressman Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts, embroiled at the time in his own scandal involving a former male companion who had been caught running a prostitution ring from the congressman’s basement. The exchange happened at a meeting on immigration during which Republicans were maneuvering to prevent Democrats from commenting on a related bill. Frank objected to being steamrolled.

“When Barney started to make his plea, Cunningham cut him off and said, ‘Well, would you like to talk about prostitutes and basements,’” Stern remembered. “The room just fell silent.”

Cunningham’s comment, one among a litany of others just like it over the years, left Stern with an indelible impression that he says never squared with the congressman’s stated motive for visiting Saudi Arabia.

“It was not to improve relations, I promise you,” Stern said. “He’s not a peacemaker; he’s a bully.”

Stern still doesn't know why Cunningham went to Saudia Arabia, but his suspicion of Cunningham's motivations led him to a review of the lifestyles of San Diego politicians. When he discovered Cunningham's purchase of a $2.55 million Rancho Santa Fe mansion, Stern gut told him something wasn't right.

"...Stern, in May, filled a few idle hours at his desk by performing routine “lifestyle audits” of members of the California Congressional delegation. That’s when he stumbled upon the sale of Cunningham’s home.

“I basically kicked over this one last stone, which was looking to see if he had upgraded his living accommodations,” Stern said. What he found was that Cunningham had purchased a new home in the exclusive neighborhood of Rancho Santa Fe for $2.55 million.

“That seemed like a substantial upgrade to me, so I looked at how he did that,” Stern said. Using a variety of public records, he traced the details surrounding the sale of Cunningham’s old home in Del Mar."

The rest, as they say, is history.