San Diego Business Journal

Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation will cost the former congressman at least $1.8 million, the amount of cash he agreed to pay back when he pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to bribery and tax evasion charges.

But experts say his departure from an influential congressional subcommittee could cost the San Diego defense industry millions more.

Cunningham, 64, officially submitted his resignation Dec. 6, surrendering his seat in the House of Representatives after pleading guilty to charges of bribery and tax evasion. His Rancho Santa Fe house has been sold and his belongings have been put up for auction since he admitted accepting more than $2.4 million in exchange for funneling defense contracts to two firms.

That he had the power to do so , without getting caught for five years , is a reflection of his committee assignment's power, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based conservative think tank.

He was the only California representative sitting on the 15-member House Appropriations defense subcommittee, which is responsible for overseeing the Defense Department's budget.

Mathew McCubbins, the chancellor's associates chairman in UC San Diego's Political Science Department, said he expected Cunningham's resignation to have a "modest effect" here.

Cunningham's assignment meant he was privy to secret budget decisions that were part of the Pentagon's so-called "black budget," the approximately $28 billion spent on classified military projects.

Without Cunningham, the region could miss out on some "earmarks" , specialized local projects that politicians tack on to large spending bills, McCubbins said.

The impact hinges on the outcome of the special election to fill Cunningham's seat, he said. Can Democrats be competitive in the heavily Republican 50th District, which stretches from La Jolla north to Carlsbad and inland to Escondido.

If Democrats make a run at the seat, McCubbins said senior Republicans may be more inclined give a key committee assignment to a freshman GOP congressman as a profile boost.

But if the Republicans are easy victors, it's less likely a first-time representative would be back in the sought-after post, McCubbins said.

"If it's not competitive," he said, "then the San Diego area stands to lose some business because of Cunningham's resignation."

When a freshman comes in, companies that had long-standing relationships with Cunningham's staff will have to educate a new group about their missions. But local businessmen say that comes with the territory and won't be difficult.

Cunningham was neither a senior member nor a vital voice on the defense subcommittee, said Linden S. Blue, the vice chairman of General Atomics, a La Jolla-based contracting firm that produces the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and does nuclear research.

The area still has two representatives in key defense-related seats: Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-San Diego, also sits on the committee, which oversees the Pentagon's programs.

"All voices are helpful," Blue said, "but there are a lot of other strong voices in our congressional delegation, on both sides of the aisle. The amount that one guy can do is limited."