Duncan Hunter and his wife have dismayed some wounded warriors. Others withhold judgment
Daniel Riley joined the Marines in 2007 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, losing both legs and half of his left hand.
He said he had a physical reaction to the allegations against Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), a fellow Marine.
“It’s disgusting,” he said. “Disgusting and unbelievable.”
The U.S. attorney’s case against Hunter and his wife, Margaret, alleges the couple used $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses and claimed some of them as charitable donations.
In one example, the combat veteran-turned-congressman is accused of spending more than $200 at Dick’s Sporting Goods on personal items such as running shoes and marked the expense as a donation to an unspecified wounded warriors’ organization.
Hunter denied the allegations Wednesday and pleaded not guilty Thursday. He and his attorneys say the prosecution is a witch hunt tainted by partisanship.
However, in a case laid out over 47 pages that included 200 allegations of questionable spending, the government brought the receipts.
In another example widely circulated on social media, the congressman wanted to purchase “Hawaii shorts,” but was out of money. His wife told him to buy them at a golf pro shop so they could claim the expense later as “some (golf) balls for wounded warriors,” prosecutors allege.
Hunter was an officer in the Marines and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the first combat veteran of those wars to be elected to Congress.
“He should have known better,” Riley said. “As a Marine, to use other people’s sacrifices to enrich himself — it’s unbelievable.”
After being injured, Riley went through rehabilitation at Balboa Naval Hospital and lived in San Diego. He works in Washington, D.C., for a program that hires wounded veterans to work as House staff.
Riley spoke as a veteran, he said, not a representative of his office on Capitol Hill, which he described as “nonpartisan and nonpolitical.”
“I want to see more veterans in Congress, in government,” Riley said. “On paper, (Duncan Hunter) is someone I’d want in Congress.”
After reading the charges against the congressman, Riley said he changed his mind.
“He’s the last person I’d want in Congress,” he said.
Last week the congressman went deep-sea fishing with several wounded warriors in Rivers of Recovery, a 501(c)(3) that offers a variety of therapies involving fishing expeditions.
Rivers of Recovery was more measured in its response.
“We at Rivers of Recovery are saddened to learn of the indictment against Congressman Hunter and his wife, and were unaware of pending charges in advance of our annual fishing trip with wounded combat veterans in San Diego,” Chairman Jeffery Weekly said by email. “While we cannot and will not comment on the indictment itself, we remain deeply thankful for the unwavering support the congressman has provided our programs, and most important, the veterans we proudly continue to serve.”
A spokesman for the national Wounded Warrior Project said his organization did not want to be affiliated with Hunter.
“It’s disappointing someone would use campaign contributions for personal gain,” said Rob Louis, a Wounded Warrior Project spokesman. “It’s very disappointing. People hear (‘wounded warrior’) and assume that’s us.”
The California Federation of Republican Women, another group the Hunters are alleged to have said they were supporting via personal purchases, declined to comment.
In one of the 200 “overt acts” alleged in the indictment, Margaret Hunter spent $25 at Vons for medication and initially told the campaign treasurer the expense was a Target gift card for a church family but settled on “Applebee’s Restaurant — Republican Women.”
A 2016 charge of $38.20 on movie ticket website Fandango was listed by Margaret Hunter to be a “gift bundle basket for Foothills Republican Women spring fashion show,” prosecutors allege.
The Hunters did contribute gift bundles to the Foothills Republican Women’s Federation, according to Patricia Schutte, the local club’s second vice president for membership.
“Twice a year his office would provide a nice gift basket,” Schutte said. “He’s been very good. This is a real tragic thing, I feel sorry for the Hunters.”
The largest purchase Margaret Hunter attributed to the Republican women’s group was in January 2016 when she is alleged to have spent $835.50 in campaign funds on tickets for her family to see “Riverdance” at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Margaret Hunter allegedly told the campaign treasurer the expense was for “San Diego Civic Center for Republican Women Federated/Fundraising.”
Paula Whitsell, the state first vice president for programs for the women’s group, said she wasn’t going to judge the Hunters prematurely.
“I think people are innocent until proven guilty,” Whitsell said. “That’s why we live in the United States.”
In another example, Margaret Hunter is alleged to have used $700 in campaign funds to make a payment on an overdue dentist bill — a charge she said was a donation to the children’s charity Smiles for Life.
Greg Anderson, the charity’s president, said the claims the Hunters made about their supposed contribution did not make sense.
“Our campaign time frame runs from March 1 to the end of June,” he said, noting the Hunters’ charge took place in August. “What (is) described, if they took funds (and) wrote a check to a dentist, not only would we frown on that, it’s not how we run.”
Anderson said the organization raises money the way it does specifically to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“It’s disappointing when those with the public trust show they’re not worthy of it,” he said.
Prosecutors allege the Hunters invoked other organizations and businesses to explain their purchases, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, which declined to comment.
Dyer writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.