Rep. Duncan Hunter’s campaign finance troubles initially seemed like a potential series of honest mistakes. But increasingly his misuse of funds look like a widespread pattern of campaign finance fraud—and Hunter just keeps getting worse at explaining himself out of the mess.
Over the last few months, the U.S. representative from California and top Donald Trump booster in Congress has found himself in hot water with the Federal Election Commission for his repeated misuse of campaign funds. But rather than quickly resolve the situation, it’s spiraling. Among other questionable purchases, the San Diego Union-Tribune has reported Hunter used his donors’ cash at a Disneyland gift shop.
In April, The Daily Beast reported Hunter had illegally spent $1,302 raised for his re-election campaign on video games and an additional $1,605 on tuition for his kids’ private, Christian school.
At the time, Hunter had difficulty describing how the charges had occurred, but he maintained they were the product of harmless errors.
He blamed the video games on a combination of his teenaged son and an outside credit card thief, and, after first incorrectly saying the payment to Christian Unified Schools had been a donation, his staff clarified that it had been intended as a donation and mistakenly used as tuition.
Hunter promised to comply with the FEC and repay the campaign. By April 11, he’d paid his campaign treasury $12,000, according to the Union-Tribune, for not only the video games and tuition but also for a garage door, an oral or facial surgery, and several unspecified expenses, including charges at a surf shop.
But since then, a long list of other illegal charges on Hunter’s campaign credit card have been reported by the Union-Tribune, prompting the question: When do a few little mix-ups start to look like an illegal conspiracy to bankroll a young family’s entire life at the expense of campaign donors?
In addition to the video games, tuition, oral or facial surgery, and surf shop fees, Hunter also used his campaign funds, according to the Union-Tribune, for 106 trips to the gas station, totaling $5,660; 16 visits to the fast-food chain Jack In the Box, for $297; 40 stops at various supermarkets like Trader Joe’s, for $6,819; $229 at the Tomorrowland gift shop at Disneyland; $1,569 in gas, electric, and water bills for his home (an illegal expense even though Hunter runs his campaign from his home); and a $216 “food/beverages” charge at a jewelry store in Italy that sells no ingestible goods.
Hunter, a former Marine who succeeded his father, Duncan Hunter Sr., to enter Congress in 2009, endorsed Trump back in February. It’s anyone’s guess as to how Trump reconciles his belief that Washington is a broken place populated by wimps who can easily be bought with his embrace of Hunter, who has repeatedly—even if accidentally—used voters’ money on himself.
Trump’s campaign has not yet responded to a request for comment.
“There are sometimes events around events, which aren’t always disclosed,” Joe Kasper said. Kasper is Hunter’s chief of staff, and that cryptic statement was, bizarrely, part of his effort to insist that Hunter has nothing to hide.
“Regardless of whether Rep. Hunter claims these misuses of campaign funds were mistakes, it’s time for a full-scale investigation by the Federal Election Commission or Department of Justice,” Paul Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast.
“Using campaign funds to pay personal expenses is a major violation,” Ryan said. “Even if it was somehow a mistake. If an investigation reveals the misuse of campaign funds was intentional, that’s an even bigger deal. Intentional violations are subject to criminal penalties, not just civil penalties.”
It’s what put former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi Jackson, in jail for 30 months and a year, respectively.
In 2013, Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to stealing $750,000 from his campaign to buy nearly $40,000 worth of Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee memorabilia; a $43,000 Rolex; and over $5,000 in fur coats. For her part, Sandi put $171,000 on the campaign credit card to fund spa and salon visits; vacations; and a fridge for the couple’s home. She filed fraudulent tax returns to cover up their illegal spending.
The Jacksons were certainly living larger than the Hunters, but the result—intentional or not—is the same: money that they didn’t earn was essentially stolen from their donors and used for their personal gain.
In response to an inquiry from The Daily Beast, Kasper said “The UT story has some things that are incorrect,” but he repeatedly refused to specify which aspects of the Union-Tribune’s reporting were false.
Kasper said, “Even though Rep. Hunter wasn’t authorizing charges, he’s proactively addressing expenditure issues in 2015 that came to his attention and he’s already begun taking corrective action in consultation with the FEC. He’s also undertaking an independent audit for expenditures in 2015 and will act on the recommendations.”
But if Hunter himself wasn’t responsible for the illegal charges to his campaign, it’s not clear who was.
Asked who authorized the charges, Kasper said only, “the campaign.”
In April, Hunter said he and his wife were the only individuals with campaign credit cards and after the errors were brought to his attention, his wife’s credit card was taken away.
“There was some confusion and miscommunication between campaign entities,” Kasper said. “The good news is that Rep. Hunter acknowledged the problem, and accepts the responsibility to fix it—which he is going to do in coordination with the FEC.”
This is the same line Hunter’s office was offering back in April. Maybe this time they mean it.