SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife were charged Tuesday with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to finance family trips to Italy and Hawaii, golf outings, school tuition, theater tickets — even fast food purchases — and attempting to disguise the illegal spending in federal records, prosecutors said.
A 48-page federal indictment depicts the couple as binge spenders who over eight years pocketed a steady stream of dollars intended for campaign purposes, while their household budget was awash in red ink.
Prosecutors said the couple tried to conceal the spending, which ranged from the banal to lavish, by falsifying campaign finance records.
In March 2015, Hunter told his wife that he wanted to buy “Hawaii shorts” but ran out of money, the indictment said. She told him that he should buy them at a golf pro shop so they could later describe the purchase as “some (golf) balls for the wounded warriors,” according to court documents.
“Throughout the relevant period, the Hunters spent substantially more than they earned,” the indictment said. “They overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a 7-year period resulting in approximately $37,761 in ‘overdraft’ and ‘insufficient funds’ bank fees.”
Asked for comment about the indictment, a spokesman for Hunter sent an Aug. 6 letter from Hunter’s attorney, Gregory A. Vega, to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein asking him to postpone the indictment.
Vega contended that there was a “rush to indict” after a two-year grand jury investigation.
There was “politically motivated” pressure to wrap up the investigation in order to tarnish Hunter before the general election after he handily won a June primary, Vega contended.
Hunter was among the earliest Republican members of Congress to endorse President Donald Trump and Vega’s letter suggested his outspoken support for the president made him a target for what he described as politically biased prosecutors.
Hunter, 41, the son of a longtime congressman, won the June primary in the strongly Republican 50th Congressional District in San Diego and Riverside counties, as news reports circulated about the federal probe.
He faces the prospect of campaigning under the shadow of a federal indictment in a year when Democrats have targeted a string of Republican-held House seats across the state.
Hunter’s Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, stopped short of calling on the congressman to resign.
“I think justice should run its course,” he said.
Campa-Najjar said Hunter was “in it for his own interests” and that it is time to “get rid of the corruption and greed that has held Washington captive for too long.”
According to the Secretary of State’s office, there is no process in the state elections code for Hunter to remove his name from the ballot, and there can be no write-in candidates for the November election.
In a statement, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said “individuals are presumed innocent until a jury of their peers convict them.”
“The congressman and his wife have a constitutional promise to their day in court and we will not prejudge the outcome,” Brulte said.
The House Ethics panel had investigated allegations that Hunter improperly used campaign funds to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses, such as trips to Hawaii and Italy and tuition for his children.
The panel said in March that it was delaying the inquiry at the request of the Justice Department.
According to the indictment, in 2015 Hunter attempted to set up a day tour of a U.S. naval facility in Italy in order to justify the use of campaign funds during a vacation with his family.
When the proposed date didn’t work out, Duncan told his chief of staff, “Tell the Navy to go (expletive) themselves,” according to the documents.
According to the indictment, the couple, spent more than $1,500 on video games in 2015; and spent $6,288.74 to take his family on a vacation to a resort in Lahaina, Hawaii, the same year. Other spending covered by campaign money included dental work, lavish dinners and movie tickets, prosecutors said.
In April 2015, the congressman’s wife, Margaret Hunter, spent nearly $1,000 in campaign funds to fly her mother and her mother’s boyfriend to Poland and later told the campaign treasurer they were campaign trips to New Orleans and Kentucky.
His lawyers said in 2017 that Hunter and his wife repaid the campaign about $60,000.
Hunter’s office said at the time that one of the charges he repaid was a $600 fee for flying a pet bunny with his family. There was no intent to stick donors with the cost, then-Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said at the time. The congressman used airline miles to pay for his family’s travel and there was an assumption that bringing along the rabbit would not incur an extra charge, Kasper told The Associated Press.
When Hunter found out his campaign had paid for the rabbit’s transport, he repaid the money as part of more than $60,000 in other questionable charges, Kasper said.