Hunter Feeling the Heat Over Kiting Scandal
Rep. Duncan Hunter, the fifth-ranking Republican in the House leadership, stoked a political firestorm Friday in his once-placid conservative district after a re-examination of his records showed he had written 407 overdrafts totaling more than $129,000 at the House Bank over a three-year period.
His unapologetic admission Wednesday of at least 160 overdrafts at the now-defunct Capitol Hill payroll office had invigorated opponents, incensed voters and thrust him into an unaccustomed negative spotlight.
The ballooning number of overdrafts released Friday is now fueling speculation that the six-term conservative congressman may be in the deepest political trouble of his career.
Also on Friday, Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) revealed that he had written four bad checks totaling $1,963 in October, 1990. Since last fall, Packard has insisted that he was untainted by the bank scandal, a position he vigorously maintained as late as midday Friday.
According to a written statement, he was “shocked and disappointed” by the revelation. He was unavailable for further comment.
But the real heat was building under Hunter, a hard-edged conservative who made his political reputation by taking tough stands and speaking his mind. And, although no one--yet--is predicting that he will be knocked off from his safe Republican perch, the bank scandal has pierced his aura of invincibility and given his political foes an easier target to attack.
Hunter got one bit of good news Friday: he is not on the list of 24 members and former members who have been identified as the worst abusers of the bank. And, after a busy day of talk shows and TV interviews, Hunter was sticking to his aggressive defense.
“I’m not going to attempt to take a phony position with respect to those checks,” he said. “I’m going to go to every town, set up a desk, show (voters) my checks and answer their questions.
“I’m going to be straightforward and make it clear that none of those checks bounced, that everybody got paid. Then I’ll address the appearance of impropriety. If they have less respect for me, I’m sorry for that. But I’m not going to go into a self-preservation mode.”
But Hunter ended an interview with a statement that hundreds of House members would echo: “I wish I had never heard of the House Bank.”
Hunter’s largest overdraft, for $23,012, was written in May, 1991, to Valley Drilling for a well on property Hunter owns.
The notion of a clubby congressional check-cashing service--where the depositor is always right and no check is too big to clear--hit with particular force among San Diego voters who are watching their checkbooks down to the penny.
The region’s airwaves were burning up this week with tirades from listeners who found Hunter’s admission about overdrafts no more palatable for its forthrightness.
Former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who hosts radio and television talk shows in San Diego, said Hunter’s announcement produced an outpouring of animosity Thursday, when 73% of respondents to an unscientific TV telephone poll said they would not vote for the congressman because of the “Rubbergate” revelations.
But, by Friday morning, callers to Hedgecock’s radio show on KSDO-AM (1130) were “a little more thoughtful,” Hedgecock said. Some callers cited Hunter’s voluntary confession, others said the scandal had to be viewed in balance with the rest of Hunter’s career, Hedgecock said.
“There was this kind of flush of emotional negative reaction, then there was this thinking about it overnight,” Hedgecock said.
“It was, however, continuing today (Friday),” he added. “More than half the callers were terribly negative about it. It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Hunter’s opponents called the congressman’s actions a metaphor for the way the entire Congress has handled the federal budget.
“A person who cannot handle his own checkbook any better than that should not be managing the checkbook of the federal government,” said Janet Gastil, the lone Democratic candidate in the race.
“In a way, it’s more of an analogy, the fact that they’re spending with no money to cover it,” said Libertarian candidate Joe Shea, who captured 27% of the vote against Hunter two years ago.
Eric Epifano, a construction project manager and Republican candidate for Hunter’s seat, added in a statement that “the unfortunate truth of all this is that Congress has written bad checks on our national bank account to the tune of $4 trillion,” the approximate size of the national debt. “The only difference is that these loans are not interest-free, and the debt will take decades to repay.”
Hunter’s carefully constructed explanation, first espoused last fall--that he was not technically “bouncing” checks because the House Bank covered his overdrafts--disturbed Gastil, a former member of the La Mesa-Spring Valley school district board.
“I feel that was very misleading,” she said. “I think the American public and the American voters are tired of politicians who mislead.”
Hunter’s Washington office reported receiving about 2 dozen angry phone calls and one supportive one--from an Ohio woman. One message that arrived via fax machine urged him to resign, said John Palafoutas, Hunter’s chief of staff.
Palafoutas characterized the callers as lucid, knowledgeable and angry.
“Only one other time--the pay raise vote (in November 1989)--were the callers so mad. The pay raise callers tended to become irrational and go into a blind rage. The bank callers are very reasoned, know the nuances of the issue and are more thoughtful. But they’re very angry,” Palafoutas said.
One former Hunter confidant described voters in the district as more stunned than angry.
“He was viewed as a guy of high integrity, a fiscal conservative. This just doesn’t fit,” the source said. “When Duncan moves his focus back to his record, he should recover. But he’s got to show contrition and stand up and take credit for this.”
Last fall Hunter said, in a shrewd bit of political rhetoric: “No one has ever had a Duncan Hunter check returned for insufficient funds.”
It had the effect of a denial, and was technically accurate even after his admission of hundreds of overdrafts this week.
But another close observer of Hunter was puzzled at the congressman’s strategy:
“He knew he was a major player and should have come clean last fall. Admit it was a violation of trust and start the healing. Now he’s faced with the first major crisis of his career in his toughest race since 1980.”
“As for his claim that a scholarship fund for needy students somehow justifies his overdrafts, I wonder who was advising him on that one,” said the source.
Hunter has acknowledged numerous overdrafts among his personal checks at the Bank of Coronado, but Bill McLaurin, president of the Bank of Coronado, declined Friday to release details of Hunter’s overdrafts at the 12-year-old commercial institution, citing privacy laws.
Hunter promised Friday to authorize disclosure of his personal bank records.
McLaurin said Hunter has an account which qualifies for the bank’s system of overdraft protection, an unsecured line of credit that covers insufficiently funded checks at a charge of 15% annually.
The maximum credit extended to most of the bank’s 2,300 customers is $20,000, McLaurin said.
“It’s a loan,” McLaurin said. “It’s just like when you advance on a credit card.”
“We couldn’t distinguish his account from any other account like that,” he added. “We handle his account just like we would any other Coronado resident.”
Packard’s surprise announcement means that all four members of San Diego’s delegation are caught up the scandal.
Packard had asked for, and received, a letter from the House sergeant-at-arms confirming his account was “clean.” But, as many members discovered, such letters were no guarantee of innocence.
Packard’s four bad checks were written during a four-day period in October, 1990.
“It appears that my error was due to a simple bookkeeping mistake,” his statement said.
“I am extremely embarrassed by this news.”
Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) admitted last fall that he had a “handful” of overdrafts but has not provided details.
His opponent in the June primary, Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-Chula Vista), has confirmed that he has only one overdraft, a $15,000 check for a new car that a Pennsylvania car dealer neglected to hold for a week, as Cunningham had requested.