By Dweisman / Escondido Grapevine
House Ethics Committee scheduled to consider Hunter financial affairs Wednesday
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-50th District) and his use of campaign funds for personal expenses is scheduled to come under review from the House Committee on Ethics at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 22. The committee announced the meeting in a Website posting Friday.
However, before one gets too excited, consider that the committee previously set meetings for March 9 and March 13, only to postpone them each time.
Republicans blame Obamacare for a lot of things, and in an odd twist, they blamed Obamacare for the first postponement or rather said the meeting was postponed due to the marathon House committee sessions they staged to markup the repeal and sort of replace of the Affordable Care Act. The second postponement was due to a forecast superstorm for Washington D.C. that ultimately delivered all of 2.5 inches of snow.
This may be the real deal though unless Republicans come up with another excuse. They are scheduled to open in a rare public hearing, then convene behind closed doors to consider Hunter and his fabulous campaign ethics violations as referred by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) he tried to abolish in January.
At that time, Hunter voted with other House Republican Caucus members as their first act in the new Congress to abolish the committee. They relented following mass public outcry calling for the independent agency to remain in place.
Should the committee convene and re-organize itself, it will represent the first actual committee meeting during the new 115th Congress.
The 10-member panel — five Republicans and five Democrats — will have to decide immediately whether to open an investigation into allegations Hunter broke campaign finance laws. The committee acknowledged in mid-December it had received the referral, but postponed making any decisions until the next Congress.
The committee is scheduled to ratify rules governing the next two years of activity, then go behind closed doors to consider Hunter’s charges and punishments, if any. The OCE Hunter report has not been made public. That report would form the basis of any charges.
Just so Hunter doesn’t feel like a snowflake singled out for melting, fellow Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the Republican Conference chairwoman, also is expected to come under the committee’s scrutiny. So, too, is Rep. Mark Meadows, (R-N.C.), chairman of the so-called House Freedom Caucus consisting of the most right-wing members of Congress.
McMorris Rodgers faces allegations, which she has denied through an attorney, that she mixed official, leadership, political action committee and campaign funds in violation of House rules.
Those eagerly following Hunter’s improper camping fund use saga might not be encouraged by the McMorris Rodgers case. The OCE referred her matter to the panel in late 2013. Except for one public announcement in March 2014 that the committee was extending its review, it has yet to make any determinations or take any action.
Meadows has been under scrutiny since November 2015 over payments to his former chief of staff for months after the aide left office. Meadows actually asked for the review initially. OCE recommended the committee investigate the payments in March 2016. The committee said it needed more time to consider the matter. That was August 2016.
The committee may also consider whether to finally move forward with investigations into the behavior of Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Bobby Rush, both Democrats from Illinois, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., which were first lodged in 2014, according to the right-wing Washington Examiner.
That the House Ethics Committee is finally meeting is somewhat of a Festivus miracle, if any Seinfeld fans are watching. It couldn’t meet previously because one of the Democrat seats was unfilled. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed Rep. Steve Cohen, (D-Tenn.) on Feb. 14. The 10-member committee also has a new chairwoman, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., and a new ranking member, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.
The meeting is scheduled for Room 1015, Longworth House Office Building if anyone cares to attend.
As For Hunter, Tale of the Tape
Hunter’s campaign has reported spending thousands of dollars on items including video games, an oral surgeon, his children’s private school tuition and travel to Hawaii.
Federal law forbids spending of 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.
During his rambling, fantastical town hall meeting Saturday, March 11, Hunter acknowledged the improprieties, saying, “Last year, I found out that there were mistaken charges on my campaign and I found out in the report that we come out with every year. As soon as I saw those I paid back immediately $12,000 then did an internal audit on my campaign finances.
“An internal audit,” Hunter continued. “We then paid back another $50,000. That includes everything. We paid back about 130 percent of what my own internal audit came out with. I announced it prior to the election. We’ve been transparent about the whole thing.”
Hunter added: ” I’ve taken responsibility for it. I’ve fixed it. End of story.”
The initial $12,000 covered $6,150 of campaign money paid to Hunter’s children’s school, $811 paid to an oral and facial surgeon and $4,935 in “event support items” and “event donation items” and such that Hunter’s office declined to identify with any more specificity.
Other initial charges repaid included $361 spent at a Coronado surf and skate shop, $1,200 to a garage door company, and $2,023 in cash payments to his wife and campaign manager, Margaret Hunter.
Separately, Hunter’s office said, the campaign treasury was made whole for some $1,300 in video game charges that Hunter originally described as fraudulent activity on his campaign credit card. The credit card company reversed the charges.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit based in Washington D.C., noted that income Hunter’s wife, Margaret, received from Hunter’s campaign for campaign consulting services didn’t appear on disclosure forms for 2011 and 2014. The campaign paid Margaret Hunter $8,000 in 2011 and $39,000 in 2014, according to the group’s review.
Fittingly, Hunter cut short a trip to Israel to answer the initial personal use of campaign finances wrongdoing charges.
Chief aide Joe Kasper, who earns $145,000 annually ranking among the highest congressional staff salaries, said the campaign checked with the House ethics committee before deciding on a funding source, and the committee said campaign funds could be used because Hunter was invited in connection with his standing as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Then, There’s the Other $50,000
Technically, $49,000 — Hunter said $50,000 during his town hall from hell — the Alpine congressman announced the repayment one week before the November 2016 general election.
Hunter made the announcement to the conservative Riverside Press-Enterprise that covers Temecula.
“The financial review has revealed additional unauthorized expenditures that I will be reimbursing to the campaign today,” Hunter told the Press-Enterprise. “And I decided, out of an abundance of caution, to treat any expense without adequate support as necessary for reimbursement.”
The Press-Enterprise story did not contain a breakdown of which expenses Hunter is reimbursing. Among the disbursements detailed by the San Diego Union-Tribune, most of them incurred in 2015:
106 fill-ups at gas stations, totaling $5,660.
- 16 trips to Jack in the Box totaling $297.
- Forty trips to Albertson’s, Trader Joe’s or another grocery store, spending $6,819 total.
- An expense for $229 at a Disneyland gift shop for “food/beverages.” A spokesman for the park told the Union-Tribune the only edible items the store sells are Pez candy and a Star Wars-themed Rice Krispy treat.
- Utilities — $1,269 for San Diego Gas & Electric and $300 to the Padre Dam Municipal Water District.
- 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.
- A payment for $216 to Gioielleria Manetti in Florence, listed on a disclosure report as “food/beverages.” The store makes and customizes jewelry and watches, according to its website. A store representative said it offers no food or drinks.
- $1,300 spent at the Cardiff-by-the-Sea restaurant that provides lunches to Hunter’s children’s El Cajon private school.
That’s Not All, Folks
While the OCE report hasn’t been made public, a portion of it was revealed just after New Year’s Day by Kasper.
Hunter’s spokesman told The Associated Press a $600 bunny rabbit travel charge would be highlighted by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“(The office) has in their report $600 in campaign expenditures for in cabin rabbit transport fees,” Kasper, told the AP. “Since travel is often done on (airline) miles — which is entirely permissible — the credit card connected to the account was charged several times even when his children were flying.”
Hunter told the AP that it was “an obvious example of a mistake being made but (the office) wants to view it through a lens of possible intent. The same goes for many other expenditures.”
Per Hunter’s seeming preference for the Riverside newspaper — he routinely ducks Escondido Grapevine interview requests and seemingly doesn’t make direct statements to the Union-Tribune due to its investigations of his behavior — spokesman Kasper told the Press-Enterprise that the rabbit transportation fees apparently were charged to the campaign credit card by mistake, instead of using airline miles racked up on the campaign charge card.
“(The office) has in their report $600 in campaign expenditures for in cabin rabbit transport fees,” Kasper said. “Since travel is often done on (airline) miles – which is entirely permissible – the credit card connected to the account was charged several times even when his children were flying.
“This was nothing more than an oversight. In fact, it’s such an obvious example of a mistake being made but (the office) wants to view it through a lens of possible intent,” Kasper said. “The same goes for many other expenditures. Many of Rep. Hunter’s repayments had to do with mistakes under specific circumstances, and in other cases there were bona fide campaign activities connected to expenditures that (the office) was not aware of and didn’t account for.”
Of course, $600 in pet bunny travel was only part of the Hunter airfare reimbursement scenarios. Some $6,000 went to United Airlines for personal or undocumented uses of campaign funds. Those charges were not itemized, but presumably included airfare for a trip he and his wife took to Italy. Hunter’s campaign spent $2,000 on restaurants, hotels and train travel in the Italian cities of Rome, Florence and Positano during Thanksgiving week in 2015.