Nathan and the Duke - Voice of San Diego

Elections UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Nathan and the Duke

San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher’s rise through
politics has been swift and successful. But there’s one stop he
prefers to breeze past: his stint as district director for jailed
former Congressman Duke Cunningham.

 

You have to know a little bit about Nathan Fletcher’s carefully constructed biography to recognize it. In there, among the Marine combat tour in Iraq, the small business experience and the two terms in the state Legislature reads this line: “District Director, 50th Congressional District.”

The job seems unremarkable, solid but bland experience for a young up-and-comer like Fletcher. The intrigue comes once you learn what Fletcher left out.

The name of the congressman representing the 50th district doesn’t appear on Fletcher’s resume. That’s because the congressman in question was Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

“The guy’s a felon,” Fletcher said. “I’m not going to do a big banner on it.”

This is what happens when you worked for the guy called the most corrupt congressman in American history. You try to elude it, but you can’t.

In just three years, the 35-year-old has gone from unknown freshman assemblyman to major contender for San Diego mayor. Fletcher’s natural political skills, celebrated military record and backing by San Diego powers like former Mayor Pete Wilson have boosted his ascent.

While Fletcher’s detractors often chide him for his inexperience, it’s his experience with Cunningham that has left the door open to questions. Though now more of a whisper than an overt attack on the campaign trail, Fletcher’s ties to Cunningham stand as one of the more likely hit pieces in the election.

Fletcher’s opponents likely won’t find much to link the two. Fletcher spent just more than two years on Cunningham’s payroll, heading up the former northern San Diego representative’s Escondido office. But for most of that time, Fletcher didn’t work there. Fletcher was on active duty in the Marines, a service that included seven months in the Iraq war.

None of the dozens of people who worked for Cunningham in his 15 years in Congress were charged in the scandal. And a review of court documents, media accounts and numerous interviews with former staffers and others knowledgeable about the case revealed no connection between Fletcher and Cunningham’s misdeeds.

“Nathan knew nothing,” said Dave Heil, Cunningham’s then-chief of staff.

Still, in one major sense, Fletcher is no different than the rest of Cunningham’s former staffers. They have pushed to distance themselves from their former boss. But no matter how hard they try, the connection never goes away.

For that, even Cunningham is sorry.

“I will tell you that neither Nathan or any of my former staff should suffer for my own sins,” Cunningham said in a handwritten letter from the Arizona prison where he’s serving an eight-year sentence.

♦♦♦

Nine years ago, a New York Times reporter presented Nathan Fletcher with an unflattering assessment of his employer.

Fletcher was 25 at the time and working in Los Angeles as political director for the California Republican Party. The reporter brought up a famous Monty Python sketch. The one with a dead parrot and a store clerk who insists — with increasing hilarity — that the bird’s just resting.

In the article, the state Republican Party is the parrot. And Fletcher is the store clerk.

”We’re not dead or resting, man,” Fletcher told the Times. ”We’re moving forward.”

So was Fletcher. He had decided to quit the state party job. He wanted to return to San Diego, a city the Nevada native came to know after joining the Marines five years before.

Fletcher heard Congressman Duke Cunningham was searching for someone to run his northern San Diego office. Back then, Cunningham was a political celebrity of sorts, best known for his military heroics, frequent off-color outbursts and publicly tearing up when pontificating on pet issues like at-risk children and patriotism.

But Fletcher said it wasn’t Cunningham that attracted him. He jumped at the job without ever having met the congressman. Fletcher said he took a pay cut, too.

“I wasn’t terribly picky,” he said. “I wanted to get back down here.”

Fletcher’s job involved the mundane tasks every member of Congress needs to do. About a half-dozen employees worked for Fletcher out of an office suite across the street from an Escondido bus terminal. They helped the elderly with their Social Security and veterans’ benefits. They went with Cunningham when he spoke to children at Legoland and constituents at Rancho Bernardo town halls. When a community group did something noteworthy, Cunningham’s San Diego staffers were the ones presenting the proclamation.

“It wasn’t a fast-paced job,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher had spent only a month with Cunningham before another job called. The Marines wanted the reservist to report to active duty.

For the next two years, Fletcher bounced from one military assignment to the next. He learned how to gather counterintelligence and fought in Iraq. In between missions, he worked for Cunningham in brief stints.

Fletcher had planned to return to Cunningham’s office full-time after using up all the military leave he had earned on active duty. He came back in January 2005, but left for good after only a month. With his war experience behind him, Fletcher said the Cunningham job no longer motivated him. He went to work sales for a wholesale security products company.

On a Sunday morning four months after his departure, Fletcher woke up early and gathered The San Diego Union-Tribune and all the other newspapers he and his wife, Mindy, read.

There, under a bold front-page headline, the Union-Tribune had a bizarre tale about his former boss: Cunningham had profited from a real estate deal with a defense contractor who also happened to be swimming in federal earmarks.

“I went in and literally it was like the big front-page story,” Fletcher said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and I was shocked.”

Fletcher’s wife told him much more about Cunningham was going to come out.

“She read it,” Fletcher recalled. “We’re sitting there talking, and she said, ‘That’s not the first thing he did.'”

A criminal probe began almost immediately. Over a period of years, case filings reveal that federal investigators found Cunningham’s corruption went far beyond a shady real estate transaction.

August 2003: Cunningham received an all-expense-paid three-day trip to a Hawaiian resort from a defense contractor that included a catered dinner of lobster-stuffed gyozas, shrimp, scallops, seared Hawaiian snapper and Manoa lettuce leaves. After dinner, the contractor bought Cunningham a prostitute.

April 2004: Cunningham solicited a $500,000 bribe from a defense contractor on his cell phone following dinner at a swanky Capitol Hill steakhouse.

May 2004: Cunningham asked a different defense contractor to buy him a room at a Washington D.C. hotel for his daughter’s college graduation party. Cunningham also requested a cake.

All the while, Cunningham was steering tens of millions in federal earmarks to the contractors. And Fletcher was gone for all of it.

“For his purpose I’m happy for him,” said Heil, the former chief of staff, of Fletcher. “He was in an active war zone instead of dealing with this ridiculous nonsense.”

Heil and other Cunningham staffers were the ones dealing with it. Some had facilitated some of the congressman’s more suspicious behavior.

Court documents show that a legislative aide had sent a flurry of emails to the Defense Department trying to push through multimillion-dollar deals for Cunningham’s favored contractors in late 2003.

Heil learned that Cunningham had bought a Suburban SUV from a defense contractor for far below its value that spring, according to an FBI affidavit. When Heil talked to Cunningham about it, the congressman told him to mind his own business. Heil and an unnamed staffer then altered the vehicle’s title to reflect a higher purchase price and Heil told Cunningham to pay the defense contractor the difference, the document says. That never happened.

Later on, Heil was told to give Cunningham an envelope with a wad of cash from the same defense contractor, according to the affidavit. After confronting Cunningham again toward the end of 2004, Heil quit. But he kept quiet about what he knew.

It’s an open question if Cunningham ever would have been caught had Marcus Stern, the Union-Tribune reporter who broke the story, not dug up the congressman’s real estate records.

The role of Cunningham’s staff in the congressman’s corruption remains one of the major unanswered questions in the scandal, Stern said. Simply put, Stern argued in a book he co-authored about Cunningham, the evidence against the congressman was so overwhelming that staffers should have known more.

In an interview, Stern said it’s likely that Cunningham had a “circle of trust” within his office that knew about the wrongdoing and that other staffers were unaware. A congressional investigation of Cunningham’s earmarks occurred as the scandal was unfolding, but the full report never was made public.

“We are likely to never know which staffers were involved or knowledgeable and which weren’t,” Stern said. “It’s a troubling ambiguity for both the public and the staffers.”

Any report that might detail staffer involvement in the Cunningham case should be made public, Fletcher said. He’s not concerned about how the fallout might affect his nascent political career.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t do anything, I didn’t see anything,” Fletcher said. “I didn’t have any connection or relationship or tie to any of it. There’s no stress or worry about it at all.”

That matches Heil’s account. He said he didn’t share his suspicions with Fletcher until the case became public. None of the FBI affidavits, witness lists, indictments, plea agreements, sentencing documents or other filings in the cases of Cunningham and his co-conspirators mentions Fletcher. His name also doesn’t appear in the two books or other media accounts of the Cunningham case.

“I never once had a single investigator even call me,” Fletcher said.

♦♦♦

Nathan Fletcher almost didn’t make it to his wedding.

He was running late and jumped on a bus with other guests to head to the Admiral Kidd Club, which sits on a Naval base on San Diego Bay that doubles as a popular wedding spot. Everyone needed identification, but Fletcher had left his behind. Fletcher needed to cajole the bus attendant into letting him board.

This lighthearted tale came from a Sept. 25, 2003 society column in the Union-Tribune. The item on Fletcher’s wedding also noted some of the politicos in attendance.

Included on the guest list: “Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham.”

It’s these simple connections to Cunningham that Fletcher won’t be able to escape no matter how hard he tries. Fletcher and his wife Mindy, a former campaign staffer for President George W. Bush, were staples in the Union-Tribune’s society pages during his time in Cunningham’s office.

Readers learned when the Marines had called Fletcher to Iraq, about Mindy’s relief when he came home and about his need for crutches after a mountain biking accident. Each story referenced Fletcher’s job with Cunningham.

But now, when Fletcher talks about his time with the former congressman he doesn’t elaborate much.

Fletcher’s first impression of Cunningham? “He seemed nice enough. He said welcome aboard.”

What were your interactions with Cunningham like? “Kind of limited. We never really developed much of a bond or a relationship.”

What gift did Cunningham give you for your wedding? “I don’t know that he did.”

Name one specific event where you were with him. “We did a couple business tours one day. I don’t even remember what they were. Just kind of generic business tours. I think there was an education thing.”

During a one-hour interview, Fletcher’s most vivid recollection of a particular interaction with Cunningham was his picking up the paper the day the scandal broke.

This response mirrors that of other former Cunningham staffers.

A Washington D.C. lobbyist refers to herself as “Chief of Staff and Communications Director to a senior Member of the House Appropriations Committee” on her bio. She doesn’t mention that the “senior Member” was Cunningham.

Heil, who now works for a Texas congressman, doesn’t believe he’s given an on-the-record interview about Cunningham since his name first showed up in court documents six years ago. Heil made an exception because of his devotion to Fletcher, whom Heil called “one of the best people I know.” He’s also donated to Fletcher in his Assembly and mayoral campaigns.

Heil called his time with Cunningham a painful chapter in his life. He’s worked hard to move past it and get on with his life.

“It just doesn’t strike me as fair for Nathan, me and others to have to prove a negative,” he said.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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