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Campaign for Rep. Duncan Hunter reports spending hundreds at amusement park, disputes drone charges

Campaign for Rep. Duncan Hunter reports spending hundreds at amusement park, disputes drone charges
Visitors to Belmont Park in Mission Beach ride the Giant Dipper. In a financial report covering Nov. 27 through Dec. 31, the campaign of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) said it spent hundreds of dollars at the amusement park. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the last five weeks of 2018, Rep. Duncan Hunter’s campaign reported spending hundreds of dollars at a local amusement park and made $2,000 in charges — now disputed — to a technology company that flies drones.

The spending at Belmont Park in Mission Beach and the disputed charges at ByteSignal, a Missouri-based technology company, are among $119,861 in expenditures Hunter’s campaign disclosed to the Federal Election Commission on Thursday, in a financial report covering Nov. 27 through Dec. 31. During the same weeks, the campaign reported raising $2,376.

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Freshly reelected after a close contest in November, Hunter (R-Alpine) has returned to the nation’s capital to resume lawmaking as he and his wife, Margaret, his former campaign manager, fight a 60-count federal indictment stemming from their alleged personal use of more than $250,000 in campaign money from 2009 through 2016.

Personal use of campaign money is against the law, to guard against the possibility of donors gaining undue influence over lawmakers. The couple has pleaded not guilty to all counts. Hunter has called the indictment a politically motivated witch hunt and says he plans to clear himself in court.

Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, responded Friday to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s questions about the new campaign filing with an email in which he declined to comment.

Hunter’s campaign reported weaker-than-usual fundraising in 2017 after it came to light that he was under federal criminal investigation, according to the FEC records.

Fundraising picked up again in 2018, but spending outpaced revenue as the campaign racked up bills for lawyers — more than $700,000 since June 2016 — and a political attack campaign against Hunter’s unsuccessful challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, that some criticized as racist.

Of the $2,376 the campaign reported raising in the most recent filing period, $2,000 came from Keller4America, the principal campaign committee for Craig Keller, a Republican candidate from Washington who ran for Congress in 2018 and was defeated in the November elections.

Keller founded a Seattle-based group called Respect Washington, which has fought against “sanctuary” cities that decline to cooperate with federal immigration officials, according to news reports. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors activities of hate groups and extremists, said Respect Washington is an anti-immigration hate group.

In the same filing period, Hunter’s campaign reported expenditures that were similar to some described in the indictment filed Aug. 21 in federal court.

According to the indictment, the prohibited personal use of campaign money included payments for a family vacation to Italy, oral surgery, organic school lunches for the Hunters’ children and more than 60 disbursements totaling $1,300 to Steam Games, an online video game provider.

After the FEC and the Union-Tribune first questioned the video game expenditures in April 2016, Margaret Hunter falsely reported to the campaign’s bank that the charges were fraudulent, the indictment states. The campaign was reimbursed and the charges were described as fraudulent in amended financial disclosure reports to the FEC.

The financial report Hunter filed last week includes three expenditures described as “disputed charges.”

The three disbursements, totaling $1,990, were made in November to ByteSignal, which specializes in using small drones to capture aerial photography and safely inspect telecommunication poles, among other services. The company’s web page described its use of the technology for site surveys, engineering photos, videos and other services.

There was no indication on the website that the company sells drones.

ByteSignal is registered with the Missouri secretary of state’s office as a limited liability company formed in 2012, with Justin M. Wood of St. Peters, Mo., listed as registered agent. A LinkedIn page for Wood describes him as the founder of ByteSignal.

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Wood did not respond Friday or Monday to the Union-Tribune’s calls and an email requesting comment.

Hunter’s recently disclosed campaign expenditures also include two charges, both Oct. 9, to Belmont Park Entertainment, an amusement park in Mission Beach. The purpose listed for both charges, $68 and $146, was “food/beverages.”

In the past, Hunter’s campaign has reported charges for “food/beverages” at theme parks that were impermissible under the personal use ban, according to the indictment against Duncan and Margaret Hunter.

The indictment describes campaign expenditures for Hunter family visits to Disneyland and SeaWorld in 2015, along with alleged attempts to disguise improper use of political funds — on at least one occasion, by telling the campaign treasurer that charges were for food and beverages when they were not.

In September 2015, Hunter’s campaign spent $229 at Disneyland’s Star Trader gift shop on gifts, including two Minnie Mouse ear headbands, a Star Wars droid knit beanie, and a black and gray raglan-sleeve Star Wars girls’ T-shirt, the indictment alleged. “In order to conceal and disguise this transaction, Margaret Hunter falsely informed the treasurer that the charge was for ‘food/bev,’” the indictment states.

The indictment also describes an occasion in July 2015 when Margaret Hunter allegedly spent $254 in campaign money at SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park to “entertain family members,” then told the campaign treasurer the charges were part of an “educational tour.” The campaign described two of those charges as “food/beverages,” FEC records show.

The criminal case against Duncan and Margaret Hunter is scheduled for trial in September, according to court records.

Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Union-Tribune staff writer Charles T. Clark contributed to this report.

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