By the end of the year, Cunningham was out of Congress and convicted of accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes. He was sentenced to 100 months in prison, in what was then the longest prison sentence ever given to a member of Congress. (The record was surpassed four years later when Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was sent away for 13 years.)
Cunningham was released from federal prison in Tucson, Ariz., in February 2013 and then spent nearly four months in a halfway house in New Orleans. Last month, the former House member filed a request to be freed of all remaining restrictions on his freedom.
Burns granted the request last week. "The court believes that the concept of simple forgiveness should be part of the equation here," the judge wrote. "Forgiveness is a moral quality and a social good and is important to a system of restorative justice.... There comes a time to forgive."
He noted that Cunningham had served a long jail sentence and spent time in a halfway house and under house arrest. "Besides these direct consequences that he suffered for his illegal actions, he lost his home, his marriage, and his reputation. At some point, once justice has been served, the system must take care to avoid erecting roadblocks that might prevent an offender from reintegrating into society and becoming a productive and useful citizen again."
Burns did not minimize the severity of Cunningham's crimes. "There is no question that Mr. Cunningham's offenses were aggravated, involving serial corrupt acts and deception," he wrote, adding pointedly, "And the deception didn't end with the sentencing. Mr. Cunningham subsequently attempted to obstruct justice by submitting a false affidavit" in the trial of one of the contractors who had bribed him repeatedly. In the affidavit, Cunningham claimed there had been no bribes. Judge Burns said he "gave short shrift" to the affidavit, but he said Cunningham had "perpetuated his dishonest behavior by submitting it."
Cunningham's request, filed on June 14 in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California, provides the first real look at the life the former lawmaker has lived since his release from prison. The documents include a personal appeal from Cunningham as well as letters of recommendation from prison guards, a minister, a retired general, and neighbors. It even includes a picture of a beaming Cunningham holding two remarkably cute puppies.
The life he portrays is comfortable but far from his high-flying lifestyle as a member of Congress and a favorite on the Republican speaking circuit when he accepted gifts of tickets to concerts and sporting events from contractors and attended parties where prostitutes were present. After living in a halfway house and then in his brother's house in Little Rock, Ark., he said he has purchased a "modest" house in Hot Springs Village. A gated community in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs Village takes up 26,000 acres and boasts of a "fun-filled recreational lifestyle" with nine golf courses, 11 lakes, 24 miles of nature trails, 16 tennis courts, three swimming pools, and a five-star fitness center.