Military Bribes Sometimes Backfire

Seven employees of Midtown’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command were busted for accepting cash and gifts in exchange for subcontracts.
  • Seven employees of Midtown’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command were busted for accepting cash and gifts in exchange for subcontracts.

In an old New Yorker cartoon, a judge on a high bench peers down imperiously at a disheveled, scraggly-faced defendant. Intones the judge, “Crime doesn’t pay at your level.” For decades, that mindset has epitomized San Diego law enforcement, which worked diligently to put little crooks away and just as diligently to get big crooks off the hook.

The four scam centers of the United States are Wall Street, South Florida, Las Vegas, and Southern California. But San Diego is known as a safe haven for white-collar thieves. When the new owners of U-T San Diego declared that the paper would henceforth be cheerleaders for local business and the military, I envisioned pom-pom girls rooting for a gang of cattle rustlers while the posse hunted down an Indian boy who had stolen a chicken.

But give credit where it is due. The U.S. attorney’s office, aided by investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and other governmental bodies, has done much to clean up a corrupt relationship between local business and the military, the U-T’s two favorite untouchables.

Duke Cunningham: took bribes on a grandiose scale

Duke Cunningham: took bribes on a grandiose scale

John Moores: showered gifts on local politician

John Moores: showered gifts on local politician

Bill Gore: looked the other way

Bill Gore: looked the other way

In early 2006, former congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes and underreporting his income to tax authorities. Later, his partners in crime also got justice, thanks greatly to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Two years ago, the last of seven defendants in a case of military contracting corruption at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), an operation expected to propel the local economy, was sentenced. SPAWAR employees had accepted cash bribes and valuable items from subcontractors. The payoffs for companies passing the bribes were juicy contracts. Among participants were employees of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, a publicly held local company.

This year, another corruption scam broke at the Naval Air Station North Island. Defense contractors gave Navy civilian employees more than $1 million in cash, checks, retail gift cards, household items, etc. In return, the contractors got millions of dollars in defense contracts.

On October 9, four Navy employees and three contractors got varying sentences. Their greed and book-juggling skills were eye-popping. Donald Vangundy, who had overseen tool control in the Navy’s E2/C2 aircraft program, was sentenced to 41 months in custody. According to plea documents, Vangundy took in $413,500 from contractors, including, in just one case, $49,000 in cash; $20,000 in gift cards; $20,000 in electronics items; $38,000 in bicycle shop goods; $78,000 in hobby shop merchandise; $35,000 in home remodeling services; $15,000 in cabinets and countertops, and the like.

He also arranged to have more than $33,000 in goods and services go to two different friends. Then, Vangundy excluded $97,355.21 in taxable income from his 2009 tax returns. Navy employees Kiet Luc, David Lindsay, and Brian Delaney got varying sentences for similar but less serious behavior. On October 18, Kenneth Ramos pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

John Newman, former sales manager of L&N Industrial Tool & Supply of Poway, was sentenced to 18 months in custody. According to the plea documents, Newman was involved in $759,937.50 of fraudulent billings. He provided $325,000 in checks, $96,000 in gift cards, $21,900 in electronics items, and other wages of sin to the Navy personnel. These gifts were charged to the Navy but steered to its rogue employees. Then Newman turned around and billed the Navy $151,987.50 for a 25 percent markup on the grease money. Two other contractor representatives, Michael Graven of X&D Supply of Carlsbad and Paul Grubiss of Centerline Industrial of Poway, also got 18 months.

Here’s how it worked: the companies would pass the bribes to the Navy employees. Then those bribes would be disguised in documents submitted to the Navy. Requests for procurement, bids from contracts, sales orders, and invoices were doctored to make it appear that the contractors were furnishing tools and related items. Then would come the markup on the phony invoices.

All told, it was a good investigative job by the United States attorney’s office, FBI, IRS, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and General Services Administration. The investigation resulted from citizen complaints on a hotline that was set up after the indictments in the SPAWAR case. The number is 1-877-NO-BRIBE. Or information can be sent securely over the internet to

Contrast this case with one of the most egregious in the history of San Diego law enforcement. John Moores, then majority owner of the Padres, was pushing for a $300 million subsidy from the City for construction of Petco Park. In the year 2000, the Reader’s Matt Potter reported that then-councilmember Valerie Stallings had bought initial public offering shares in a hot new issue of a Texas-based stock, Neon Systems, controlled by Moores.

Local so-called law enforcement officials found numerous reasons they couldn’t take on an investigation. So the United States attorney’s office took the hot potato; the FBI handled the investigation. It came out that Stallings had been on the “friends and family” list of special people who could get cut in on the certain-to-be-sizzling stock at the offering price of $15. The stock zoomed, as expected; Moores tipped her to sell within $1.10 of the all-time high of $50.25, and she dumped it for a nifty 267 percent profit in only 26 days.

It turned out that Moores had showered other gifts on her as well. But there were no charges of insider trading of Neon shares, on which Moores had shown such prescience. The then–United States attorney astoundingly said it is not a crime to give gifts to public officials, but of course it is when the giver expects something in return. Moores got Stallings’s vote on the ballpark, as well as information from closed council sessions that she passed to him, according to a Union-Tribune story of the time. She got off with a light wrist slap and Moores walked completely.

FBI special agent William Gore could find no evidence of a quid pro quo. Gore is now sheriff of San Diego County. ■

Contact Don Bauder at 619-546-8529

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


A bit off topic, but I'm always amused by how law enforcement personnel have adopted the trappings of military rank, and how the head honcho wears an astounding FOUR stars on his/her epaulets. Here in the county, I even once saw the Coronado police chief sporting four stars on his uniform. With the size of that department, he'd be entitled to, at best, the two silver bars of a captain. So, we have Gore, Lansdowne, and a whole host of others strutting around wearing four stars. In his day, U S Grant only wore three! He commanded an army of over a million in 1865. These cops really need to learn a bit of humility.

These cops really need to learn a bit of humilty.

These baby Einsteins have the ego's of a Donald Trump, but the brain power of a circus chimp.....

Visduh: To get to the top -- say, sheriff or chief of police -- you have to play politics, and lots of politics. It takes political skills to get to the top of the military, too. The cop or soldier who struts is usually mistaken for one who is brave. Best, Don Bauder

SP: Trump has a big ego and an even bigger mouth. It amazes me that some people still think of him as a business genius just because he plays one on TV. Some of his bondholders have found out otherwise. Best, Don Bauder

In the Old West, Trump would have been a snake oil salesman. Now he sells real estate properties, most of which he does now even own.

dwbat: Yes, and in the Old West, Trump would have been gunned down shortly after arriving. Best, Don Bauder

Gore wore out the knees in his pants to get to where he is. As FBI head in San Diego he halted the investigation that would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers in their tracks. He is a total incompetent and San Diego is the only city in the country where a clown with his record could win an election.

Burwell: Gore's predecessor wasn't so hot, either. Best, Don Bauder

I have to agree. Kolender was about the worst sort of police chief and sheriff anyone could imagine. He rose through the ranks of police public relations types, not as a patrol cop, not as an investigator, and certainly not as a leader. Is Gore worse? Who knows? But somehow the board of supervisors managed to put him in place and avoid having a real cop in the job. The more things change, . . .

Visduh: I always liked Kolender personally but thought he left much to be desired as chief and sheriff. Best, Don Bauder

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

SD Reader Newsletters

Join our newsletter list and enter to win a $25 gift card to The Broken Yolk Cafe!

Each subscription means another chance to win!