WASHINGTON — Rep. Duncan Hunter on Thursday denied any wrongdoing related to a federal indictment accusing him of misusing more than $250,000 in campaign funds over six years and appeared to cast blame on his wife for numerous instances of alleged bookkeeping and ethics errors.
“My campaign did make mistakes,” the California Republican and Marine Corps veteran said in a national interview on Fox News Thursday evening. “Not me, but members of my campaign. But I paid that back before the last election, nearly $60,000.
“This is pure politics, and the prosecutors can make the indictment read like a scandalous novel if they want to.”
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged Hunter and his wife, Margaret, with dozens of counts of fraud and conspiracy for using campaign donations for personal purchases, including vacations, private-school tuition, dental work and alcohol.
The indictment accuses Hunter of repeatedly ignoring warnings about his wife’s use of campaign credit cards and concealing purchases from staff who warned the actions may be against federal law.
Both Hunter and his wife, who has worked in various roles in Hunter’s six congressional campaigns, were arraigned in federal court in San Diego on Thursday. Bail was set at $15,000 for the congressman and at $10,000 for his wife, in part because federal officials said the couple’s personal finances are nearly bankrupt.
In his Fox News appearance, Hunter said many of the more salacious claims in the indictment were total fabrications.
He insisted a series of trips to Pittsburgh — which included tickets to professional football games — were legitimate fundraising activities. Other trips were similarly campaign related or mistakenly billed to the wrong accounts.
Hunter flatly denied one claim from investigators that he and his wife discussed purchasing a pair of shorts for a vacation to Hawaii and recording the expense as “(golf) balls for wounded warriors” instead of a personal expense.
“I don’t remember that, but I would never do that. I’ve never used any campaign money to buy myself anything and slough it off on anybody else,” he said. “Just because somebody may have texted me that, doesn’t mean I did that or had anything to do with that.”
When asked about his wife’s innocence, Hunter noted that she has handled their family’s finances since 2003, when he first deployed overseas with the Marine Corps.
“Whatever she did, that will be looked at, but I didn’t do it,” he said. “Legally, I did not use campaign money, especially for wounded warrior stuff. There’s just no way.”
One allegation Hunter didn’t deny was saying to a campaign manager “f*** the Navy” after service officials wouldn’t accomodate a base visit for him during a trip to Italy in November 2015. The congressman said the trip was a legitimate campaign event, but said his frustration was likely recorded correctly.
“I probably said that and many things like that,” he said. “I was in the Marine Corps for a while. I love the Navy and the Marine Corps and all the other services. My Dad was in the Army. My little brother was in the Army. I might talk trash about the Army every now and then too. But it’s all in good fun.”
After the indictment was announced, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., announced that Hunter would be stripped of all committee assignments until his case is settled.
Hunter, a combat veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is a significant voice on military policy in the House and an outspoken member of the House Armed Services Committee. After initially hinting he would fight the committee removals, Hunter sent a note to House leadership on Thursday accepting the decision.
But he added that “I fully intend to resume my position as an active member of these committees upon a successful resolution of pending legal matters.”
Hunter faces re-election this November. He has accused federal prosecutors of being activists for the Democratic Party and waiting until now to file the charges in an attempt to undermine his election chances.
As a member of Congress, Hunter makes $174,000 a year. When asked on Fox News if that salary is too low, he said “it’s difficult to live in a place like San Francisco or San Diego or New York or D.C.” on that salary.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.