Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) should step down from his seat in Congress, at least for as long as it takes to resolve the voluminous federal charges he faces for allegedly using his campaign fund as a family piggy bank.
The San Diego County congressman and his wife, Margaret, were slapped Tuesday with a 47-page indictment accusing them of improperly using more than a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses, such as vacations, clothes and fancy dinners with friends. But even more troubling, the Hunters (she has acted as his campaign manager and handled the reporting to the Federal Election Commission) allegedly lied on documents to hide a pattern of pilfering.
Hunter cannot remain an effective member of Congress while these allegations hang over his head, and his presence there would further erode public faith in a badly tarnished and polarized political system. He has already been stripped of his committee assignments by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who gets credit for treating the charges against Hunter with the appropriate gravity. Hunter should also suspend his reelection campaign, even though it is too late to remove his name from the ballot. It’s not fair to ask voters for another term when he knows he might spend it in jail.
Hunter cannot remain an effective member of Congress while these allegations hang over his head.
But Hunter probably won’t do either of these things. In a televised interview Wednesday he was defiant, brushing off the charges as political “dirty tricks” and pledging to continue the campaign. “This is the Democrats’ arm of justice,” he explains.
Those words don’t make any sense. The Democrats didn’t trigger this investigation; Hunter did by using $1,300 in campaign funds to buy video games and catching the attention of the nonpartisan enforcement staff of the FEC.
After the expense came to light two years ago, Hunter blamed the purchase on his son using the wrong credit card. But the questions didn’t end there, as the San Diego Union-Tribune detailed a number of other apparently improper expenditures in 2017 and 2018. And then in March, the Republican-chaired but bipartisan House Ethics Committee reported that Hunter may have spent tens of thousands of dollars of campaign funds improperly.
Finally, it was federal grand jurors, not Democrats, who came up with a 60-count indictment that paints a picture of a lawmaker treating his campaign account as a personal ATM.
But the words don’t have to make sense to act as a dog whistle to a voter base that Hunter hopes will ignore the very serious — and extensive — charges he faces. After more improper expenses came to light after the video games item, Hunter wrote them off again as mistakes, and did reimburse his campaign about $62,000. But the sheer volume of improper expenses now alleged — vacations, dental visits, clothes, groceries, kids’ tuition and, once, a plane ticket for a pet rabbit to join the family on vacation — can’t be easily brushed off. There are other troubling aspects of the charges to which Hunter must answer, such as reporting purchases of certain personal items as charitable contributions. Did a purchase of shorts at a golf pro shop actually benefit a veterans group as campaign documents assert? If not, as the indictment alleges, it is shamelessly sleazy.
This is not a partisan issue to the editorial board. When the California Senate suspended three Democratic senators in 2014 — Leland Yee and Ron Calderon, who were facing charges of corruption, and Roderick Wright, who had been convicted of perjury and fraud — we argued that the trio shouldn’t be doing the people’s business with charges pending. When Los Angeles Unified School Board member Ref Rodriguez was charged with laundering campaign funds last year, we called on him to resign because his continued presence on the board was affecting its credibility and its ability to function.
Hunter’s arraignment is set for Thursday morning. That would be a great moment for him to do the right thing for his constituents, for the institution he serves, for the country and for common decency and take a leave of absence. Voters of this Republican-dominated district already face what will be for many an uncomfortable choice: reelect a man on Nov. 6 who may soon be a convicted felon, or a back his rival, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a progressive Democrat. How they choose will reveal much about the electorate’s priorities in 2018.