Charges against Duncan Hunter threaten his support from military community

One of the most galling aspects of Tuesday's breathtaking ...

Posted: Aug 23, 2018 10:05 AM
Updated: Aug 23, 2018 10:05 AM

One of the most galling aspects of Tuesday's breathtaking indictment of Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, was how the former Marine could allegedly act with such blatant disrespect for the military he once served in.

Beyond the accusations of the Hunters' graft and extravagance -- from in-cabin flights for the family's pet bunny to an $14,000 Italian vacation financed with campaign funds -- the indictment has opened Hunter to intense scrutiny from the many current and former service members who live in California's 50th District, where veterans compose nearly 10% of eligible voters.

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In interviews earlier this year, some veterans told CNN they were puzzled by how a Marine who had served three combat tours overseas could so brazenly break the rules, or claim that suspicious charges on his campaign credit card were innocent mistakes. In some cases, that was one reason why they didn't believe the allegations swirling around him.

Now, in the indictment, federal prosecutors detailed a disturbing pattern where, they say, the Hunters attempted to disguise their purchases as benefiting wounded servicemen and women or the military itself.

The most striking example is an alleged conversation in 2015 between Duncan and Margaret Hunter about how he was planning to buy his "Hawaii shorts" but had run out of money.

"She counseled him," the indictment says, "to buy shorts at a golf pro shop so that they could falsely describe the purchase later as "some (golf) balls for the wounded warriors."

Later, as the family was scrambling to explain why a $14,261 Thanksgiving vacation in Italy was paid for with campaign funds, Hunter tried to set up a day tour of a US naval facility in Italy during the trip, according to the indictment.

Naval officials told the congressman from California that they could accommodate the tour only on a certain date, and it didn't happen.

Hunter asked his chief of staff to deliver a curt response: "Tell the navy to go f*** themselves," Hunter said, according to the indictment.

Margaret Hunter then told the campaign treasurer that the family's charges in Italy "were mostly military/defense meet related." But prosecutors unearthed an email from Margaret Hunter to a friend that directly contradicted that statement.

"Italy was amazing," she wrote in the email. "Truly our best family trip so far. Like that saying 'if traveling was free you'd never see me again.'"

Much of the admiration for the Hunter family in CA-50, which covers eastern and northern San Diego County, has stemmed from their military service and their commitment to those values.

Hunter's official biography on his congressional website notes that his grandfather was a Marine Corps artillery officer in World War II.

Hunter's father, Duncan L. Hunter, served in the Army Rangers' 75th Ranger Regiment during the Vietnam War in South Vietnam. While in the House of Representatives before his son succeeded him, the elder Hunter headed the House Armed Services Committee.

The younger Hunter joined the Marines after Sept. 11, 2001. While campaigning for his first term, he was called back to active duty for a combat tour in Afghanistan. Margaret Hunter managed his campaign in his absence, and he was greeted as a military hero when he returned home six months later and was elected overwhelmingly.

That history, along with his father's deep connections to defense contractors, has formed one of the pillars of Hunter's political career and has been the source of many donations to his campaign.

As Hunter argues that the charges against him are politically motivated -- and that the Department of Justice is the Democrats' arm of law enforcement (as he told ABC 10News this morning) -- he still must explain why he and his wife allegedly tried to use the military as their cover to gallivant through Italy on their donors' dime.

Beyond Hunter's legal jeopardy, his biggest political challenge now is ensuring that pillar of defense community support doesn't crumble. His political survival depends on it.

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