By Chris Stone
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday for allegedly using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including family vacations, dental bills, theater tickets and international travel for relatives.
The indictment also accuses them of filing false campaign finance records with the Federal Election Commission.
Federal prosecutors said they identified “scores of instances” between 2009 and 2016 in which the couple used campaign funds to pay for “personal expenses that they could not otherwise afford.”
Among the personal expenses they allegedly funded with campaign cash were family vacations to locations such as Hawaii and Italy, along with school tuition and smaller purchases such as golf outings, movie tickets, video games, coffee and expensive meals.
The couple allegedly misreported the expenses on FEC filings, using false descriptions such as “campaign travel,” “toy drives,” “dinner with volunteers/contributors” and “gift cards,” according to federal prosecutors.
“The indictment alleges that Congressman Hunter and his wife repeatedly dipped into campaign coffers as if they were personal bank accounts, and falsified FEC campaign finance reports to cover their tracks,” U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said in a statement. “Elected representatives should jealously guard the public’s trust, not abuse their positions for personal gain.”
The indictment, dated Aug. 21, lists 200 instances of a conspiracy to “to defraud, devise and execute a material scheme to defraud the campaign, and to obtain money and property, by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises, and by intentional concealment of material facts.”
Duncan Hunter, 41, and Margaret Hunter, 43, are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in downtown San Diego federal court.
The San Diego Union-Tribune posted a letter by one of Hunter’s attorneys — Gregory A. Vega — to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, “which further accused the DOJ of a politically motivated attack on Hunter.”
Hunter, a Republican, has represented east San Diego County in Congress since 2009, following in the footsteps of his father, Duncan Lee Hunter, who had represented the largely rural district since 1981.
The younger Hunter was among the first House members to publicly endorse Donald Trump in his election campaign.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat who is challenging Hunter in the November general election, said the indictment reflects “the division, chaos and corruption” in national government.
“Today’s indictment confirms just how deep this corruption can reach when someone like Duncan Hunter Jr. is in it for himself instead of representing the people,” Campa-Najjar said. “Now is the time to put country over party and rise against this corruption and rise above the divisive politics.”
NBC7 reported that former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter said his son knew nothing of the alleged expenditures. Rather the congressman’s wife, Margaret, was in charge of the spending.The Hunters married in 1998.
Throughout the indictment, the campaign treasurer, Chris Marston, is said to have warned the Hunters about their spending and in December 2010 threatened to resign. After that time, the Hunters lied to the treasurer about the nature of the expenditures, saying falsely that they were campaign related, the indictment states.
For example, the indictment states that Mrs. Hunter spent $2,569.96 in campaign funds at Barnes & Noble, primarily to buy items for her family and friends. In order to conceal and disguise the illegal use of campaign funds for personal expenses, she falsely told the treasurer that the March 22, 2010, charge was for “booklets on San Diego,” it states.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for Hunter to resign, saying the indictment is “evidence of the rampant culture of corruption among Republicans in Washington today.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) also called on Hunter to resign.
“Congressman Hunter and his wife have shown a blatant disregard for the law and for the people who contributed to his campaign, spending a quarter of a million dollars from his campaign for his personal benefit,” Bookbinder said in a statement.
“We are glad to see Congressman Hunter will finally be forced to face the consequences for executing one of the most breathtaking and egregious Congressional spending scandals in recent history… Given the scale and scope of his misconduct, Congressman Hunter should resign immediately.”
The Hunters maintained both a joint checking and joint savings account, but the indictment states that the congressman had a separate personal checking and savings accounts into which he made small monthly deposits for his own personal use.
The indictment gives a look at the Hunters’ financial woes.
Throughout the period of 2009-2016, they spent “substantially” more than they earned. They overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period resulting in $37,761 in “overdraft” and “insufficient funds” bank fees, the indictment said.
It further said that Hunter “facilitated … theft of campaign funds by ignoring his campaign staff’s multiple warnings about Margaret Hunter’s improper use of campaign funds, accusing campaign staff of disloyalty by trying to create ‘some kind of paper trail on me’ when they raised concerns about improper spending.”
With regard to their use of campaign funds for travel, the indictment states that Mrs. Hunter reserved hotels and paid other personal vacation expenses through Expedia, with the expectation that campaign records would not reveal the names or locations of their destinations.
In addition, the document states that the Hunters concealed and disguised the personal nature of many of their campaign expenditures by attempting to have the campaign’s name taken off the official campaign credit cards.
In reference to their dealings with the campaign treasurer, the indictment states that the Hunters disregarded rules implemented by the treasurer to track legitimate expenses (such as not purchasing gas using campaign funds, withdrawing cash from ATMs, using “petty cash” without keeping a proper record of how it was spent, and failing to provide receipts which listed the names of donors and volunteers with whom Margaret Hunter claimed to be spending campaign funds), and, when pressed by the treasurer to comply, she dismissed the rules as “silly.”
Travel expenditures with campaign money were documented in the indictment, including $14,000 for a family Thanksgiving vacation in Italy in November 2015; more than $6,500 for a family vacation to Hawaii in April 2015; more than $3,700 for a family vacation to Las Vegas and Boise in July 2015; more than $2,400 for a Las Vegas couples’ vacation in August 2011; and more vacations to destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Pittsburgh, London and Washington, D.C.
In the entertainment category, it states that on 24 occasions between 2010 and 2016 Hunter spent $881 in campaign funds at Cottonwood Golf Club for greens fees, food, and drinks while golfing with family.
Calling the charges against Hunter “deeply serious,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Hunter will be removed from his committee assignments.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, urged against a rush to judgment.
“In our country, individuals are presumed innocent until a jury of their peers convict them,” he said in a statement. “Our founding fathers believed so strongly in freedom of religion that they gave us one amendment. They believed so strongly in the right to keep and bear arms that they gave us one amendment.
“They believed so strongly in civil liberties and legal protections of individuals that they gave us five amendments to the Constitution. The congressman and his wife have a constitutional promise to their day in court and we will not prejudice the outcome.”
In an editorial for Wednesday’s paper, the Union-Tribune said: “If he had any honor at all, Hunter would resign…. He has disgraced himself more thoroughly than his critics ever could. He doesn’t deserve the privilege of representing Californians in Congress.”
Updated at 12:50 a.m. Aug. 22, 2018
— City News Service and Times of San Diego staff contributed to this report.