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Duncan Hunter will probably get his congressional pension despite guilty plea

Rep. Duncan Hunter
Rep. Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy, is scheduled to be sentenced March 17.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Last month, Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy for converting campaign funds to personal use, but that doesn’t mean taxpayers will be off the hook for supporting the congressman after he retires.

Hunter, an Alpine Republican who was sworn into office Jan. 3, 2009, has garnered at least 11 years of service toward the congressional portion of his pension, meaning he’ll still probably receive thousands of dollars in retirement benefits related to that service in addition to benefits from prior military service.

The amount of money in Hunter’s congressional pension is not publicly known, and the Congressional Research Service and the Office of Personnel Management declined to provide information regarding his benefits. Hunter remains in Congress, although he said he would step down “shortly after the holidays.” He is to be sentenced March 17.

Based on formulas outlined in a paper released by the research service, it is estimated that Hunter, 43, would receive an annual payment of at least $32,538 from his congressional pension, which he can begin accessing when he turns 62.

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“I do not have any information to provide regarding Congressman Hunter’s personal finances, including the status of his retirement or pension,” said Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter.

Legal and policy experts said Hunter would probably keep his taxpayer-funded pension even though he violated the public’s trust.

“Corrupt members of Congress deserve time in prison, not taxpayer-funded federal pensions,” said Adam Andrzejewski, chief executive of OpenTheBooks.com, a project of the open government group American Transparency. “However, the rules are so lax, no member has ever been stripped of their congressional pension.”

Andrzejewski provided an Oct. 9, 2019, email in which an official with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management stated that no members of Congress had been stripped of their retirement benefits because of a conviction.

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For example, former Rep. Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat convicted in 2017 on 18 of 22 corruption charges including mail fraud and filing a false federal tax return, is collecting pension benefits from prison, as is former Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah, who was convicted in 2016 on 23 counts of racketeering, fraud and other corruption charges.

Former San Diego Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a 78-year-old Republican who was convicted on federal charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud in 2005, is also reportedly still eligible for or is currently receiving his congressional pension.

Legal and policy experts said Hunter was unlikely to be the first member of Congress to have his congressional retirement benefits stripped away because, although conspiracy is among the crimes that can cause lawmakers to lose their pension, the law covers only conspiracy to commit 29 specific types of acts — and all of them relate to conduct as an officeholder or involving the federal government, federal employees or public property.

Hunter’s conspiracy crime was related to campaign finance activity that is not among the specified types of acts.

“He pleaded to a single felony but not one that is specifically included in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act,” said Beth A. Rotman, an attorney who is the money in politics and ethics program director for the good government group Common Cause.

That 2007 law, which was sponsored by Democratic Nevada Sen. Harry Reid in the Senate and by Democratic Michigan Rep. John Conyers in the House, amended parts of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 in an attempt to reduce how frequently lawmakers and staff shuffled between federal jobs and the private sector. Hunter’s father, Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, voted in favor of the law before retiring from Congress the following year.

Rotman said the law includes many more crimes than it did 20 years ago, but “it’s not everything. In cases like this, the desire to keep the pension could be one of the reasons someone accepts a plea that is only a portion of the charges.”

Of the 59 counts prosecutors dropped as part of Duncan and Margaret Hunter’s respective plea deals, dozens of counts are for felony wire fraud, allegedly committed after the federal law governing stripping of pensions was updated in 2012 with the passage of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act. Felony wire fraud is among the specific crimes listed in the law as offenses for which a conviction would cost members of Congress their pension.

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Hunter’s vote was among 417 in favor of the STOCK Act, which passed in the House in February 2012 with two members voting in opposition and 14 abstaining, according to the website for the clerk of the House.

Rotman said the guilty pleas could still cost the Hunters if their sentences included the maximum $250,000 fine, for example, or if they did not declare as income on tax returns the $150,000 to $200,000 they admitted to using for personal expenses and the Internal Revenue Service came calling to collect back taxes.

Hunter was indicted in August 2018 on 60 federal charges that he stole $250,000 of campaign money and used it for family vacations, groceries, extramarital affairs and other non-campaign uses dating back to at least 2010.

In a signed plea agreement filed Dec. 3 in federal District Court, Hunter declared that he understood that by pleading guilty to the single count, he “may be giving up, and rendered ineligible to receive, valuable government benefits and civil rights, such as the right to vote, the right to possess a firearm, the right to hold office, and the right to serve on a jury.”

The agreement contains no mention of pensions.

Hunter and former Rep. Chris Collins of New York were the first two Republican members of Congress to support Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016. Collins resigned from Congress on Oct. 1 and pleaded guilty to insider trading charges. Because of the specific counts he agreed to, Collins is reportedly more likely to lose his pension benefits than Hunter.

Clark and Cook write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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