Second GOP congressman indicted on criminal charges in two weeks

Rep. Duncan Hunter was Donald Trump's second congressional endorsement — after recently indicted Rep. Chris Collins

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 22, 2018 11:50AM (EDT)

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA  (Getty/Joe Raedle)
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA (Getty/Joe Raedle)

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California has just joined Rep. Chris Collins of New York with a particularly dubious distinction — they are not only the first two members of the House of Representatives to support Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, but they have both been indicted for financial crimes in the last two weeks.

In Hunter's case, the alleged crimes include wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy.

"Throughout the relevant period, Defendants Duncan Hunter and Margaret Hunter maintained both a joint checking and joint savings account," the indictment against the California congressman and his wife claims. "The checking account was used as their primary bank account for paying virtually all family bills (the Hunter family bank account). The Hunters rarely used the joint savings account and maintained a minimal balance in that account. Duncan Hunter maintained separate personal checking and savings accounts into which he made small deposits for his own personal use personal bank accounts."

It added that, between 2009 and 2016, "the Hunters spent substantially more than they earned. They overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period resulting in approximately $37,761 in overdraft and insufficient funds bank fees." As a result of a situation in which "their credit cards were frequently charged to the credit limit, often with five figure balances, resulting in approximately $24,600 in finance charges, interest, and other fees related to late, over the limit, and returned payment fees," the indictment concludes that "the Hunters knew that many of their desired purchases could only be made by using Campaign funds."

The list of alleged "desired purchases" reads at times like a cartoonishly over-the-top luxury list. It includes a $14,000 family vacation to Italy, a $6,500 vacation to Hawaii, a $3,700 vacation in Las Vegas and Boise, almost $2,000 for a family member to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers football game as a birthday gift and more than $1,000 for a three-night stay at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino with a person identified as "Individual 14," according to CNN. There are also expenses for their children's school, dentistry bills, $11,300 worth of personal items from Costco, more than $5,700 of personal items from Walmart and a number of other routine purchases.

Hunter vehemently denies having broken the law and characterizes the charges as politically motivated, arguing that the Department of Justice is trying to "hand" his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a victory in the traditionally Republican congressional district.

"Congressman Hunter and his wife have shown a blatant disregard for the law and for the people who contributed to his campaign, spending a quarter of a million dollars from his campaign for his personal benefit," Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement after the announcement of the indictment. "When CREW filed multiple complaints against Congressman Hunter for spending campaign funds for personal use in 2016, we believed he was violating the law but had no idea of the systematic and deceitful lengths to which he and his wife had gone. We are glad to see Congressman Hunter will finally be forced to face the consequences for executing one of the most breathtaking and egregious Congressional spending scandals in recent history."

The statement added, "Today the Justice Department is sending a clear message that you cannot abuse your campaign for your own personal benefit. Given the scale and scope of his misconduct, Congressman Hunter should resign immediately."

READ MORE: When a woman is accused of sexual misconduct: The strange case of Avital Ronell

This has been a bad week for the pair of congressmen who were the first to endorse Trump's presidential campaign. Collins was indicted earlier this month on charges of securities fraud, wire fraud and false statements. In Collins' case, he was accused of using insider knowledge about an Australian pharmaceutical company known as Innate Immunotherapeutics Limited in order to avoid suffering financial losses after he learned in advance about an unsuccessful test result.

"In or about June 2017, Christopher Collins, the defendant, violated the duties he owed to Innate by passing material, nonpublic information regarding the drug trial results to his son, Cameron Collins, the defendant, so that Cameron Collins could use that information to make timely trades in Innate stock and tip others," the charges against Collins claim.

When it comes to the specific issue of misusing campaign funds, however, Hunter may be more directly compared to Trump's vice president, Mike Pence. During a congressional campaign in Indiana in 1990, Pence was revealed to have spent campaign funds on personal expenses, a choice that wasn't criminal at the time but raised a number of serious ethical questions.

As The Washington Post reported in 2016:

Campaign finance records from the 1990 effort showed that Pence, then 31, had been using political donations to pay the mortgage on his house, his personal credit card bill, groceries, golf tournament fees and car payments for his wife.

The spending had not been illegal at the time. But it stunned voters — and undermined Pence’s strategy to portray the incumbent, Rep. Philip R. Sharp, as tainted by donations from special-interest political action committees.

“It was a brazen act of hypocrisy,” said Billy Linville, who was Sharp’s campaign manager. “It was a bombshell, for sure. . . . Without question, he may well have won the election if it had not been for that.”

Pence's actions may also be directly responsible for the fact that Hunter is now facing criminal charges.

Pence’s 1990 race also led to key changes in campaign finance policies. Experts say that subsequent rules passed by the Federal Election Commission barring the use of campaign funds for personal needs were the direct result of ethics concerns raised by Pence’s actions.

Other members of Trump's administration have also been tied up in financial scandals, from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson spending excessively on office furniture and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price using a private plane at taxpayer expense to a number of inappropriate uses of public funds committed by former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.

While it is unclear whether Collins and Hunter will be found guilty or whether Hunter's scandal will revive interest in Pence's past, if nothing else, it looks very bad for a president who promised to "drain the swamp" to find that his closest supporters have been tied to so many financial scandals.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Ann Coulter Campaign Funds Duncan Hunter Mike Pence