There was another indictment of note in the deluge of legal news yesterday, this time in California. Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife are subject to a 60-count indictment including wire fraud and campaign finance violations.
The indictment, filed Tuesday in federal court in San Diego, accuses the couple of converting more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses and filing false campaign finance records with the Federal Election Commission to cover up the true nature of the expenses.
The 60-count indictment accuses the couple of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, falsification of records and aiding and abetting in the prohibited use of campaign contributions. Within hours of its issuance, Hunter assailed the investigation as politically motivated just weeks before the fall campaign season gets underway. House Speaker Paul Ryan nevertheless announced that Hunter had been stripped of his committee assignments.
Hunter, 41, has been under scrutiny since April 2016, when the FEC and then The San Diego Union-Tribune began questioning expenses of campaign funds on video games, private school tuition, oral surgery and a garage door for the couple’s Alpine home. Spending of campaign funds for personal use is banned by law, to protect against undue influence by donors who might benefit from congressional actions.
By November 2017, Hunter had repaid his campaign more than $60,000 for what he identified as personal, mistaken or insufficiently documented expenditures. Under financial pressure, the congressman sold his own Alpine home and moved into the home of his father, who shares the same name and preceded him in Congress.
As a member of Congress, Hunter receives an annual salary of $174,000. Margaret Hunter, 43, was the congressman’s campaign manager, paid $3,000 a month until April of 2017. They have two daughters and one son.
The Hunters used campaign funds for ski trips, hotel stays and European vacations, according to the indictment. They dined everywhere from Spago to Taco Bell, from Mister A’s to Weinerschnitzel.
The Hunters and their supporters are claiming the spending to be oversights, and suggest political motivation for the charges:
Hunter’s father, former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, could not be reached by the Union-Tribune on Tuesday. On 10News, he defended his son, saying Margaret Hunter was responsible for the larger expenses, and Hunter had nothing to do with them. He said expenses at restaurants are normal for campaigns because the candidates can’t accept contributions at their official offices and must go elsewhere to conduct campaign business.
The former congressman went on to accuse prosecutors of being motivated by their political agenda. In defense of his son’s character, Hunter reminded reminded the voters that Hunter had a strong record of service to his country.
“This is the same guy who, when we were attacked on 9/11, quit his job right downtown, walked across the street, joined the Marine Corps, and deployed in three combat tours for our freedom” Hunter said. “Wait for the verdict.”
That defense, however, strains credulity if even a portion of the allegations are true. Prosecutors have laid out accusations of a systematic pattern to not only spend, but also conceal and misdirect funds.
Hunter’s campaign credit card allowed the family to take lavish vacations that they could not otherwise afford, according to the indictment filed Tuesday in federal court in San Diego.
Investigators found that Margaret Hunter concealed the name or location of their destination by purchasing tickets for personal vacations by using websites like Expedia. Among the trips using campaign funds: a 2015 family vacation in Italy over Thanksgiving totaling more than $14,000; an April vacation in Hawaii costing $6,500; and a $3,700 trip to Las Vegas and Boise in July 2015.
In addition to family trips to fast food and fine dining establishments, as well as venues like the Del Mar Racetrack, the Hunters allegedly also spent thousands of dollars of campaign funds on routine purchases for personal items at Costco ($11,300), Walmart (more than $5,700), Barnes & Noble, Target and Michael’s craft store.
In one of Margaret Hunter’s trips to Target, she allegedly spent more than $300 in campaign funds for “a tablecloth, three square pillows, a three-brush set, a metal tray, four temporary shades, four window panels, a white duck, two Punky Brewster items, a ring pop and two five-packs of animals,” according to court documents. She described the purchases as being needed for “teacher/parent & supporter events.”
Hunter repeatedly pushed back on inquiries from his treasurer about his and his wife’s spending. For example, the Hunters allegedly spent nearly $2,000 on a November 2010 birthday gift for a family member to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers game at Heinz Field. When questioned by his treasurer about whether the expense was campaign related, the congressman gave a curt response: “Yessir.”
When the treasurer explicitly told the congressman in December 2010 that he could not use campaign funds “for a leisure outing at which the discussion occasionally focuses on the campaign,” Hunter asked the treasurer if he was “trying to create some kind of paper trail” on him.