The ancient human habit of turning to strangers for help in hard times now manifests in online crowdfunding pleas from cancer patients, soon-to-be college students from tough backgrounds, and people too poor to make bail for a traffic case.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) took more or less the same approach, according to a federal indictment handed down Tuesday night. Only the cause turns out to have been his and his family’s appetite for lavish experiences that he somehow couldn’t afford on his $174,000-a-year salary. And the means was campaign fraud.
Hunter and his wife Margaret are accused of embezzling $250,000 in campaign funds over nearly seven years. They racked up the haul in darkly hilarious chunks – a few rounds of tequila shots here, a round of golf there – and hardly ever cracked into four figures on any given episode from their alleged fraud spree. The two racked up almost $40,000 in overdraft fees on their personal checking accounts as they scraped along an economic bottom during the period in question.
The highlights from the indictment include numerous incidents where the Hunters pretended to be buying goods for a charity for wounded armed forces veterans, a community central to the political brand Hunter built around his decision to quit a white-collar job and enlist in the Marines after 9/11. Back from multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunter took over the San Diego-area congressional district his father, an Army Ranger who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, had held for years.
The Hunters’ largest dips into the campaign kitty went to paying household bills or springing for elaborate international vacations, often while their own checking accounts were overdrawn. But the smaller details of their laissez-fraud approach to Hunter’s fiduciary duties to his supporters paint a sadder, sillier picture of 21st century Americans living beyond their means. Highlights, to pick just a few, include:
- $1,528.68 downloading video games from the Steam store in 2015 alone, and $271.22 for a specialized “gaming keyboard and gaming mouse” from Best Buy the following year
- $300 in cash from an ATM for a day of drinking and horse betting at the Del Mar Racetrack with two friends
- “On or about March 20, 2015, when DUNCAN HUNTER told MARGARET HUNTER that he was planning ‘to buy my Hawaii shorts’ but had run out of money, she counseled him to buy the shorts at a golf pro shop so that they could falsely describe the purchase later as ‘some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors.'”
- Various liver-defying tabs for nights out at bars familiar to D.C. residents, from $200 checks at Chinatown fixture Fado’s for a UFC fight and at the boozy, minigolf-themed H. Street Country Club, to a $127.56 bill at low-rent Stoney’s in Logan Circle, to “$462.46 in Campaign funds for 30 shots of tequila and one steak” at a local favorite Adams Morgan Salvadoran joint called El Tamarindo
- $216.50 on athletics gear from Dick’s Sporting Goods, which Margaret again tagged to the wounded soldiers charity work
- $142.36 at Men’s Warehouse for tailoring. (When his campaign treasurer asked why his donors were buying him a new hemline, Hunter wrote back, “Lol. Men’s warehouse was a possible semi-embarrassment that I had to let ride.”)
The picture that emerges from the indictment is of a sad version of the swindles that Treasury Chairman Steve Mnuchin and wife Louise Linton are accused of pulling on taxpayers. The difference is Mnuchin and Linton can actually afford the luxe life that the Hunters were determined to perform, courtesy of society’s bizarre decision that running banks should make folks like Mnuchin untouchably flush forever.
Hunter’s attempts at covering his tracks, as relayed in the indictment, are somehow even funnier than the embezzlement episodes themselves. One golf day with a buddy became “‘a Christian thing’ with a supporter” when his staff asked. Margaret’s use of donor bucks to bail out the family’s underwater cable bill “was a ‘one time set up’ fee for an ‘internet printer and fax line'” at the house, she told the same staffer, before going on to make 9 more payments for a total of almost $3,200. One grocery bill for the family in September 2010 became “misc. items and docor [sic] for school-related and campaign events” when Margaret filed expense reports with the campaign treasurer.
Sometimes Hunter’s own attempts to graft some kind of fig leaf onto one of his donor screw-jobs wouldn’t quite pan out. Seemingly realizing that he needed an excuse for taking his family to Italy four days after the vacation began in 2015, the congressman reached out to military contacts to arrange an official visit to a nearby U.S. Navy facility. Rebuffed on the grounds that it was all a bit spur of the moment and the active military base couldn’t quite accommodate his needs on short order, the Marine veteran replied “tell the navy to go fuck themselves.”
Though the Hunters would eventually grow proactive at scheming out this or that cover story for a purchase, at the early end of the period covered in the indictment it was often staff who initiated conversations about the spending. When Hunter spent two grand on NFL tickets as a birthday present for a family member, the treasurer pinged him to check if it was campaign related. “Yessir,” Hunter replied. A few weeks later, the same treasurer started warning both Duncan and Margaret that they couldn’t charge “a leisure outing at which the discussion occasionally focuses on the campaign.” Hunter accused his employee of “trying to create some kind of paper trail” in response, while his wife replied to a demand for specific lists of people for whom the campaign was buying dinner by saying “that’s silly.”
Later that year, with Hunter finishing up his very first term, the two were starting to figure out they needed to try a little harder. They just weren’t very good at it. Margaret initially tagged $25 in prescriptions billed to the campaign credit card as “Target gift card donation to church family” before rethinking it and filing the charge as the equally vague but more electiony-sounding “Applebee’s Restaurant – Republican Women.”
With first-quarter reporting deadlines looming in 2011, Hunter’s treasurer again sought assurances about Hunter’s spending.
“Of course they are all campaign,” the freshly-reelected congressman responded. “Why else would I charge them to the campaign card.”