Lawmaker indicted for misuse of campaign funds

Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, routinely -- and illegally -- used campaign funds to pay various personal bills, according to a 47-page Department of Justice indictment.

Posted: Aug 22, 2018 9:59 PM
Updated: Aug 22, 2018 10:15 PM

Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, routinely -- and illegally -- used campaign funds to pay personal bills big and small, from luxury vacations to kids' school lunches and delinquent family dentistry bills, according to a stinging 47-page indictment unsealed Tuesday.

The charges of wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy were the culmination of a Department of Justice investigation that has stretched for more than a year, during which the Republican congressman from California has maintained his innocence.

The detailed indictment portrays the Hunters as living well beyond their means and said they "knowingly conspired with each other" to convert campaign funds to personal use.

Federal prosecutors contend that the Hunters repeatedly misrepresented what their expenses were for -- in one instance buying personal clothing at a golf course so that the purchase "could be falsely reported to the treasurer as 'balls for the wounded warriors,'" the indictment says.

The indictment also charges that Duncan Hunter facilitated the "theft of campaign funds" by directing his treasurer to obtain a campaign credit card for his wife at a time when she had no formal role.

The congressman then insisted that his wife be named as his paid campaign manager -- over the objections of his treasurer -- because, according to the document, he said the family needed "the extra money that would come from her salary."

Prosecutors said Hunter also allowed the alleged theft to take place by "ignoring his campaign staff's multiple warnings about Margaret Hunter's improper use of campaign funds." He lashed out at aides, the indictment says, by accusing them of disloyalty and "trying to create some kind of paper trail on me."

The indictment makes it clear that the Hunters were in dire financial straits and could not have supported their lifestyle without the use of those campaign funds.

The Hunters overdrew their personal bank accounts more 1,100 times in a seven-year period, according to the indictment from the US Attorney's Office in San Diego, resulting in $37,761 in "overdraft" and "insufficient funds" bank fees.

"By virtue of these delinquencies -- as well as notifications of outstanding debts and overdue payments from their children's school, their family dentist, and other creditors -- the Hunters knew that many of their desired purchases could only be made by using campaign funds," the indictment says.

The Justice Department said the Hunters are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday morning in federal court in San Diego.

A spokesperson for Duncan Hunter said the congressman believes the indictment against him and his wife is "purely politically motivated."

Hunter's team asked DOJ to recuse two prosecutors who they say attended a Clinton campaign event in La Jolla. According to letters to DOJ released by Hunter's team, US Attorney Adam Braverman determined recusal was not necessary.

A letter to US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein accuses DOJ of a truncated process and timing that will "hand" Democrats a victory in Hunter's Republican district.

Multiple sources familiar with the case tell CNN that the decision to indict was made by Braverman, who was appointed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year. Assistant US attorneys act at Braverman's direction and there's no connection between this case and the 2016 presidential election.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the US attorney's office said, "The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California and the Department of Justice in Washington, DC reviewed and rejected Mr. Hunter's complaints. The prosecutors attended the event at the invitation of the Secret Service. The Secret Service, for many years, has routinely invited prosecutors to attend events involving their protectees in support of the Service's law enforcement mission."

Republican Party leaders had long worried that with a potential indictment looming, Hunter's traditionally safe district, which makes up much of eastern San Diego County, could be at risk of Democratic takeover in November's midterm election.

Senior White House officials were aware of the impending announcement and bracing for the Hunter news to join a slew of bad news stories that have hit the White House all at once, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Hunter was a founding member of the "Trump Caucus" in the House during the 2016 campaign, and alongside Rep. Chris Collins, was the first of two sitting congressmen to endorse Trump for President back in February 2016. Collins was indicted earlier this month on insider trading charges.

In a statement on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the charges against Duncan "deeply serious" and said he will be removed from his committee assignments "pending the resolution of this matter."

Rep. Steve Stivers, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement, "These are troubling charges leveled against Congressman Hunter. I trust our judicial system and eagerly await more facts surrounding the case."

Allegations of lavish spending

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.

When the treasurer threatened to resign, Hunter promised that he would instruct his wife not to use the campaign credit card and put it in a safe place.

The indictment underscores that the Hunters also spent campaign money to entertain friends, family members and associates, many of whom are not named in the court documents.

In one instance in January 2010, the congressman allegedly spent more than $1,000 for a three-night stay at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino for what was described as a "personal ski trip" with a person identified in the indictment only as "Individual 14."

The indictment states that in June 2011, Hunter used $162 in campaign funds "for a personal stay at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel with Individual 14."

When the campaign fell short at the end of 2012, and the treasurer informed Hunter they could not pay outstanding bills, Hunter allegedly told his aide that he would raise between $11,000 and $15,000 from campaign donors to address the shortfall by the middle of the next month.

Hunter, a former Marine, has reimbursed his campaign account some $65,000 since the Federal Election Commission first questioned spending on video games in 2016, according to FEC records.

"There was wrong campaign spending, but it was not done by me," Hunter told KGTV-10, a San Diego television station, earlier this year.

Hunter's lawyers said last year that "any mistakes were made they were strictly inadvertent and unintentional."

Re-election fight

California's 50th District is a staunchly Republican district with many current and former military families. The congressman's father, Duncan L. Hunter, represented parts of the district (which changed after redistricting) and has rallied donors and supporters to his son's side.

Hunter's Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Department of Labor aide in the Obama administration, has repeatedly outraised him.

Many Hunter allies believe he will stay in his House seat while fighting the charges.

Even if federal candidates choose to withdraw from contention, their names will remain on the ballot unless they seek removal of their names from a judge, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.

At this late juncture, there is no possibility of a write-in campaign. Only Hunter and Campa-Najjar will appear on the November ballot, since they were the top vote-getters in California's top-two primary in June.

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