An ethics advocacy group has filed complaints with two federal oversight agencies, asking officials to investigate what the group describes as a pattern of questionable campaign spending by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Alpine).
The complaints, filed Thursday morning with the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics, describe thousands of dollars Hunter’s campaign spent on personal items, including video games and an oral surgeon — and raises new questions about spending on what appears to be a vacation to Italy.
Federal law forbids spending campaign funds for personal purposes or benefit, to guard against corrupting influences by donors. In Hunter’s case, defense contractors and others with interests before committees on which he serves are his primary contributors.
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“The amount and frequency of these improper expenditures alone warrants and audit,” the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, wrote in the complaints.
CREW describes itself in the complaints as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit government and political watchdog organization.” It has been criticized in recent years as biased against Republican candidates, an accusation the organization has denied.
Hunter’s chief of staff, Joe Kasper, said Thursday that CREW is a leftist group, and has been focusing lately on politicians like Hunter who support Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
"CREW's motive is fund-raising, plain and simple," Kasper said. "That’s what they do—they sound alarm bells, exaggerate, in the hope they can direct more donors and financial support their way."
Kasper said Hunter voluntarily flagged the mistaken or questionable expenditures, repaid the campaign $12,000, amended disclosure reports and hired an outside law firm to audit the spending.
Kasper said Hunter made the campaign whole for the expenditures questioned by the FEC and The San Diego Union-Tribune in recent weeks, and, in an abundance of caution, Hunter repaid some expenditures that no one else questioned. The FEC directed the campaign to mark all the payments to be reimbursed as “mistaken,” whether they were or not, Kasper said.
Previously reported expenses include video games, oral surgery, a garage door, a surf and skate shop and private school tuition. All have been explained by Kasper as mistakes, clerical errors or legitimate campaign expenses reimbursed to avoid misperceptions.
CREW’s complaint formally seeks an audit of those reimbursed charges, but also questions some campaign expenses reported by Hunter that have not been reimbursed.
For instance, the Hunter campaign reported spending more than $2,000 on restaurants, hotels and train travel in the Italian cities of Rome, Florence and Positano during the Thanksgiving holiday week in 2015.
The group questioned one possibly mislabeled expense — a purchase at an Italian jewelry store that was listed on a disclosure report as “food/beverages.” The payment was for $216 to Gioielleria Manetti in Florence. The store makes and customizes jewelry and watches, according to its website. A store representative on Thursday said it offers some product lines other than jewelry, such as watches, but no food or drinks.
“This spending, the timing of the trip over the Thanksgiving holiday, and photographs of Rep. Hunter posted on his Facebook page suggest the trip was a family vacation,” the complaint said. “None of these expenditures, however, has been identified as personal or mistaken.”
The Union-Tribune reviewed Hunter’s Facebook page and found two photographs that appeared to have been taken during the trip to Italy. In one photo, Hunter posed in front of ruins that appear to match ruins in Pompeii. In another, Hunter and his wife pose at what appears to be a popular tourist destination in Positano, on the Amalfi coast.
House ethics rules limit the use of campaign funds to pay travel expenses when the primary purpose of the trip is activity that serves a bona fide campaign or political purpose, according to CREW’s complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“If the primary purpose of the trip is personal or recreational but involves some campaign activity, campaign funds may not be used to pay for transportation costs, and only may be used to pay the additional meal or lodging expenses from the campaign activity,” the complaint said.
The complaint said the trip appeared to be more of a family vacation than a trip for bona fide campaign or political purposes.
Hunter's chief of staff responded on Thursday, "We don’t owe CREW an explanation of what he might have done to involve official activities around any outside event or travel, regardless of whether his family was with him."
Earlier in the week, Kasper had issued a statement to the Union-Tribune about the Italy trip, saying, “It is permissible to use campaign funds for expenses not covered by the MRA (Mandatory Returning of Allowances) on travel, which includes international travel. Further, campaign funds can be used for purposes of obtaining donation items or donor support items, as is the case here.”
Kasper has previously offered a similar explanation for $361 of campaign funds spent at a Coronado surf and skate shop — that the purchases were made for a community or campaign event. Since first being asked on April 19, Kasper has not identified the items purchased or the event that benefited from them.
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Hunter’s $12,000 of reimbursements came amid a review by The San Diego Union-Tribune of expenditures listed on his disclosure forms as personal expenses or mistaken charges “to be paid back,” although they were not.
The review was prompted by a letter the FEC sent April 4 to Hunter’s campaign, questioning more than $1,300 in payments to Steam Games, a video game company, and a $1,650 payment to Christian Unified Schools in El Cajon, where his three children attend.
Hunter’s campaign has said Hunter’s teenage son took the wrong credit card from his father’s wallet to buy game access from Steam, and his purchase was followed by a series of fraudulent charges that have since been reversed. The donation to the school, and at least one other payment of $3,500, were intended as charitable donations but the school mistakenly applied them as tuition, Kasper says.
Other expenditures Hunter reimbursed include $811 paid to an oral and facial surgeon and $1,200 to a garage door company. Kasper has suggested someone from the campaign may have damaged the family’s garage door.
Hunter’s wife, Margaret, has been his campaign manager, at a rate of $3,000 per month.
Margaret Hunter’s involvement in the campaign and earnings also raise questions about personal benefit that warrant federal inquiries, CREW wrote in its complaints.
Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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