By Miriam Raftery
Indicted Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Alpine) could lose his congressional pension if convicted of felony corruption charges under federal reform laws. Those include the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act” that his father, Duncan Lee Hunter, voted for in 2007.
According to the press statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which filed the indictment, Hunter and his wife, Margaret, are charged with “conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, wire fraud, falsification of records and prohibited use of campaign contributions.”
The 47-page indictment details the charges related to allegations that the Hunters stole a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds to use for lavish personal expenditures such as vacations, jewelry, airfare for a pet rabbit, hotel rooms for the Congressman’s personal relationships, and children’s private school tuition while their personal accounts were overdrawn.
S.1., the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, was enacted following conviction of San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham on bribery charges.
Cunningham kept his pension, although the federal government seized a portion to pay back taxes for his unreported income from bribes.
Before then, only the most grave offenses such as treason would bar a member from getting their retirement pension.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act bars members of Congress from receiving pensions if they are found guilty of a much broader range of offenses. Several of those include charges faced by Hunter including wire fraud and conspiracy to commit an offense.
Moreover, in 2012, the STOCK Act was signed into law further expanding the list of offenses for which a member of Congress and other officials shall lose their pensions. Those offenses include making false claims or false statements to the government.
Hunter is accused of falsifying records in his campaign reports to the federal elections commission, such as falsely claiming funds were spent on charitable giving when the funds were allegedly spent on personal uses such as clothing purchases and family dental bills.
Attempting to evade paying taxes is another crime for which a member would lose their congressional pension, under the STOCK Act.
If the Hunters failed to declare as income money that they took from the campaign to use for personal expenses, they potentially could fax tax liabilities.
Federal law does give some leeway to the Office of Personnel Management to consider the impacts on a spouse and children when determining pension eligibility. Hunter’s attorney has told the court that the Hunters have no significant financial assets.
However, a spouse found complicit, or even noncooperative in testifying against an indicted member, can also be denied the member’s pension.
If a pension were to be provided to a convicted member’s children due to financial need, the law requires that measure be taken to assure that the convicted congressional member will not benefit from any such payment.
Hunter has claimed the investigation is a “witch hunt.” He has blamed partisan politics, even though the indictments were filed by a U.S. attorney appointed by Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in turn was appointed by Republican President Donald Trump.
Trump, on Twitter, later blasted Sessions for allowing his Justice Department to bring charges against Hunter and another indicted member close to the November election. The president drew criticism from ethics experts for the remarks suggesting politics should be a priority over justice.
In court this week, Hunter asked to be excused from a court hearing slated later this month, but a federal judge in San Diego denied his request, stating that Hunter must be treated equally to anyone else facing felony charges.
If not convicted, Hunter would be eligible for a congressional pension, having served more than five years in the House of Representatives since his election in 2008.
Hunter is running for re-election in the 50th Congressional District against Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Miriam Raftery is editor of East County Magazine. This report was originally published by East County Magazine, a member of the San Diego Online News Association.