By Ken Stone
Jiffy Lube workers near the El Cajon offices of Rep. Duncan D. Hunter say they saw FBI agents several weeks before Thursday’s announcement that the Republican was under investigation by the Justice Department over alleged campaign finance violations.
Times of San Diego spoke to workers at the North Magnolia Avenue strip mall where they have a clear view of the Hunter office just yards away.
One lube worker said he saw the agents — identified by badges they wore on their belt loop — during a scheduled Thursday protest.
The worker said he saw two or three agents, but that a morning manager saw “quite a few of them” earlier.
Jiffy Lube general manager Uriah Martinez on Thursday said he wasn’t present that day, but that FBI agents “actually did inform one of our employees that they were doing an investigation. Other than that, we don’t know exactly what they were doing.”
Agents entered the five-term congressman’s office, Martinez said, adding: “You could just see all of them that were inside there.”
A member of the Indivisible East County San Diego group on Facebook confirmed the date of the Hunter office demonstration as Thursday, Feb. 23.
“Local law enforcement was called in around 5:30-6 p.m.,” said another member of the closed Facebook group. “A man walking by hit one of our protest leaders — she held a megaphone.”
On Thursday the House Ethics Committee revealed that Hunter is under investigation by the Justice Department. In a 216-word statement, the committee released a report of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
The OCE board, by a 5-0 vote, recommended that the committee “further review the above allegations concerning Rep. Hunter because there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Hunter converted campaign funds to personal use to pay expenses that were not legitimate and verifiable campaign expenditures attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes.”
However, the committee voted to postpone its review because of the Justice Department investigation.
Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman in Washington, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the FBI presence. Ronda Rayzor, office manager at Hunter’s El Cajon outpost, declined to comment.
FBI Special Agent Davene Butler, media coordinator for San Diego’s FBI office, said the FBI can’t confirm or deny an investigation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego had no comment.
But The San Diego Union-Tribune was provided a statement by Elliot S. Berke and Gregory A. Vega, attorneys for Hunter.
“Last year, Congressman Hunter became aware of expenditure issues confronting his campaign committee,” the statement began. “Out of an abundance of caution, he took corrective action in consultation with the FEC and, ultimately, he and his wife personally repaid the campaign approximately $60,000.”
The lawyers said Hunter intends to cooperate fully with the government on this investigation, “and maintains that to the extent any mistakes were made they were strictly inadvertent and unintentional.”
The House Committee on Ethics review was sparked by a complaint against Hunter originally submitted to the OCE by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.
At his March 11 Town Hall in Ramona, Hunter explained the “mistaken charges” to his campaign credit card.
“As soon as I saw those, I paid back immediately $12,000 then did an internal audit on my campaign finances,” Hunter told the crowd at Ramona Mainstage. “We then paid back another $50,000. That includes everything. We paid back about 130 percent of what my own internal audit came out with.”
He chalked the spending up to “mistakes that were made by my campaign.”
He concluded: “I have fixed it now. It’s all straightened out. I’ve taken responsibility for it. I’ve fixed it. End of story.”
The Washington-based ethics watchdog CREW said last April that Hunter’s campaign committee disclosed “payments to hotels and restaurants in Rome, Florence and Positano on what appears to be a family vacation to Italy, as well as train tickets and other travel costs. One particularly questionable purchase was for hundreds of dollars marked as ‘food/beverages,’ but the payment was made at a jewelry store in Florence.”
In January, Hunter spokesman and chief of staff Kasper told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the majority of the reimbursed charges were due to sloppy bookkeeping.
“[Kasper] said all the campaign’s expenses have been thoroughly audited and the charges Hunter did not repay were all permissible,” the U-T said.
Kasper was quoted as saying: “For expenditures not repaid, there was an official or unofficial connection to the expenditure. Based on the audit, [Hunter] believes all expenses have been sufficiently accounted for, covered above and beyond, in excess. And he went significantly further for expenses that were legit but lacked the proper documentation and/or support.”
In a statement, CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said: “Rep. Hunter has shown a blatant disregard for the rules, spending tens of thousands of dollars from his campaign for his personal benefit. This is the most egregious Congressional spending scandal since Aaron Schock. We are glad to see the Office of Congressional Ethics voted unanimously for an investigation and will be closely following the FBI’s criminal investigation into Congressman Hunter.”
Gloria Chadwick of the Grossmont Healthcare District board, among seven announced challengers to Hunter in 2018, said in a statement: “Duncan Hunter Jr.’s personal greed, unethical conduct and corruption in office makes him unfit to represent us in Congress. He thinks he’s above the law and doesn’t have to play by the rules.”
She said she applauded the Office of Congressional Ethics for its vote to investigate what she called Hunter’s “blatant misuse of campaign contributions and dishonorable conduct while the FBI conducts their criminal investigation of Congressman Hunter. The only cure for corruption is to replace him with with smart, ethical and honest representation.”
Meanwhile, a “Dirty Duncan Ethics Rally” has been scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Westfield North County mall in Escondido by Indivisible East County San Diego, which targets Hunter’s 50th District.
“DIRTY DUNCAN NEEDS TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR HIS ETHICS VIOLATIONS! WE CANNOT LET HIM PASS WITH, “…end of story.” NO!!! It’s Illegal, Unethical, and just plain WRONG!” said a Facebook posting.
“Dirty Duncan thinks we are a small fringe group. LETS SHOW HIM HOW UNIFIED AND NUMEROUS WE ARE!!!!”
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