The criminal indictment issued against Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, late last month alleges years of cavalier spending — luxury resorts, fine dining, tequila shots and more — all paid for with political contributions.
The 47-page document also says the five-term Republican from Alpine had “personal relationships” with five unnamed individuals. The federal indictment offers few details about the relationships, and Hunter’s lawyer objected to the turn the investigation took.
In an August letter to the Justice Department, defense attorney Gregory Vega argued that prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges for conduct that falls into gray areas of civil election law.
“This is true even for personal indiscretions of the congressman that the prosecutors seem intent on charging,” Vega wrote. “The supposed reason given for including these details is that they reflect spending of campaign funds for extramarital infidelities and excessive drinking.”
According to Vega’s letter, prosecutors told the defense that they have pictures of indiscretions.
“While there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility or alcohol dependence, once properly understood, the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity,” Vega wrote.
The news outlet Politico reported in February that Hunter had a reputation for carousing and that federal investigators had inquired about two women with whom Hunter allegedly had affairs.
Hunter, 41, told Politico that questions about that were “tabloid trash.” Asked if that was a denial of the affairs, Hunter replied, “No, it’s tabloid trash.”
As Vega told the Justice Department before the indictment, “These allegations are … intended to embarrass and humiliate the congressman shortly before a crucial election, and also to alienate him from his wife, the only other person under investigation and his intended co-defendant.”
Vega, who formerly ran the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of California that is now prosecuting Hunter, did not respond to requests for comment. The attorney for Margaret Hunter, 43, similarly declined to comment.
The Hunters pleaded not guilty to all charges at their U.S. District Court arraignment in San Diego late last month and were quickly released on bond.
Speaking to the media, Hunter has called his prosecution a deep-state “witch hunt.” He has both blamed his wife for any improper spending — “she handled my finances” — and admonished reporters to “leave my wife out of it” when asked about the case.
In all, the indictment alleges some 200 incidents in which Hunter and his wife misused political donations. Many of the purchases were recorded when the family bank account had little money on deposit or was overdrawn, records show.
The reelection campaign spent more than $140,000 at bars and restaurants, often picking up the tab for friends and relatives identified in the indictment only as “individuals,” as well as three unnamed members of Congress.
Individuals 14 through 18
Five of the unidentified people who benefited from the illegal spending — Individuals 14 through 18 — all “lived in the Washington D.C. area and had personal relationships with Duncan Hunter,” the indictment states.
In January 2010, just one year after Hunter succeeded his father (a 14-term congressman also named Duncan Hunter), the freshman representative spent $351 in campaign funds on a rental car to drive with Individual 14 from Reno to Lake Tahoe, prosecutors said.
Three days later, Hunter had his campaign pay a $1,008 tab at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino “for food, drinks and three nights lodging during a personal ski trip with Individual 14,” the indictment states.
On the same day, the Hunter family bank account had a negative balance and incurred six separate overdraft fees, prosecutors allege.
“On or about March 24, 2010, in Alexandria, Va., Duncan Hunter spent $121.34 in campaign funds at the Birchmere Music Hall for food and beer while attending a concert with Individual 14, Congressman A, and Congressman A’s date,” the indictment alleges.
Hunter’s campaign spending on behalf of Individual 14 lasted more than a year, including “driving his car on a 468-mile trip to Virginia Beach” and “a personal stay at the Liaison Capitol Hill” in the first half of 2011, the indictment claims.
The last spending alleged with Individual 14 was listed as June 2011, when prosecutors say Hunter charged $254 to his campaign for “beer, golf and clothes shopping” at the Old Hickory Golf Club.
By June 2015, the indictment begins referencing spending on an Individual 16, who “worked with Duncan Hunter,” according to the indictment.
Those campaign charges included $203 at the H Street Country Club in Washington for dinner and drinks with Individual 16 and Congressman C and his date.
In October 2015, Hunter spent campaign funds on another person with whom he had begun a personal relationship, the indictment said, identified as Individual 17. The $42 in billings paid for Uber rides to and from the person’s home on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of that month.
The next September, the indictment alleges, Hunter used political donations to pay a $32 Uber fare from Individual 18’s home to his congressional office at 7:40 a.m. on a Thursday.
In addition to the five individuals in the Washington area named as having personal relationships with Hunter, there is another — Individual 7 — identified by prosecutors as living in the San Diego area and being friends with Margaret Hunter.
“She and Margaret Hunter socialized together in the San Diego area and occasionally on family trips out of town,” the indictment says.
Prosecutors also detail an outing that included Rep. Hunter and Individual 7, without Margaret Hunter, including a night at Busboys and Poets (a restaurant, lounge, bookstore and theater).
“On or about March 23, 2016, in Washington, D.C.,” the indictment also says, “Duncan Hunter spent $865.63 in campaign funds for a room at the Liaison Capitol Hill while Individual 7 visited from San Diego.”
‘The long game’
Throughout his political career, Hunter has presented himself to constituents as a Christian conservative and committed family man. So far, the allegations of illegal spending and other conduct antithetical to that image have not driven away voters.
A Survey USA poll released last week showed Hunter leading his opponent, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, by 8 percentage points. While some Hunter constituents are second-guessing their support, others told the San Diego Union-Tribune they were certain to vote for him in November regardless of the criminal charges.
David Doherty, a political science professor at Loyola University Chicago, studies public perceptions as they relate to elected officials. He said it is not clear why politicians accused of transgressions are not always held to account at the ballot box.
“The most likely explanation is simply that many voters don’t see being moral in one’s personal life as central to the job of a representative,” he said.
“Lots of people simply don’t pay attention to the news,” he said. “The real effects may not emerge until his opponent (perhaps with help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) airs a bunch of ads about this scandal.”
Rebecca Bartel, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State who has been following the Hunter case, has another theory about why the scandal has yet to threaten Hunter’s reelection.
She said many white evangelical Christians are playing “the long game” and are willing to overlook personal indiscretions of elected leaders if they pass laws and appoint judges favorable to their core beliefs.
“It’s about putting different people on the Supreme Court,” Bartel said. “It’s about rewriting laws and recreating a kind of atmosphere where these individuals no longer feel like they are being persecuted.”
Paul Goren, who teaches political psychology and other courses at the University of Minnesota, said many voters overlook the personal behavior of elected officials because they support their positions on culture-war touchstones such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
“It just blinds partisans to a lot of these indiscretions that lots of members of Congress are engaging in,” he said.
The Hunters appeared back in court Tuesday.
McDonald and Cook write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.