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Duncan Hunter is Using Campaign Funds to Defend Himself Against … Misusing Campaign Funds

Hunter and wife alleged to have siphoned $250,000 from campaign coffers for personal use

The trial of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., will not begin until after Election Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The trial of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., will not begin until after Election Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Duncan Hunter’s legal defense is coming from the same campaign coffers he and his wife are accused of misusing, so far amounting to more than $600,000 for the lawyers.

Federal Election Commission filings show Hunter’s campaign made payments for “legal services” or “legal fees” to eight different law firms in excess of $600,000 during the 2018 election cycle. This includes disbursements of $182,000 to the San Diego-based law firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, which is representing Hunter in the grand jury investigation. The five-term GOP incumbent and his wife were indicted for allegedly using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

By comparison, another recently indicted congressman, Rep. Chris Collins, spent just over $250,000 in legal fees from the campaign coffers, all of it going to a single law firm.

While using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited, Hunter’s use of campaign funds for attorney fees is likely legal and permitted because it should pass the FEC’s so-called irrespective test. That test stipulates personal use is considered any use of funds from a candidate’s campaign account to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense that would exist even if the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as an official in federal office did not exist.

In this case, that means Hunter should be able to use campaign funds to defend himself against allegations of misusing campaign funds precisely because he has a campaign at all. Reread that again if you need to.

In previous advisory opinions, the FEC notes campaign funds may be used to pay for up to 100 percent of legal expenses related to campaign or officeholder activity. These include suits where the candidate or officeholder was a defendant and the litigation arose directly from campaign activity or the candidate’s status as a candidate. These also include investigations pertaining to the candidate or officeholder’s role as a candidate or officeholder.

The Hunter campaign’s expenditures of $600,000 for the 2018 election dwarfs the campaign’s previous payments for legal matters. Previous FEC filings state the campaign has only ever paid for legal fees in one cycle. In 2016, the campaign spent $32,444.48 in legal services to Berke Farah LLP, whose clients range from political action committees, candidates and campaign committees.

Hunter has retained Berke Farah LLP this cycle, paying them almost $81,000 from the Hunter campaign.

Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek received the largest share of the legal defense money from Hunter’s campaign, with payments making up one-third of his total expenditures marked “Legal Services” or “Legal Fees.”

Other recipients of Hunter’s campaign money specialize in campaign legal matters.

The law offices of Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC, which lists election law as one of their practice areas, received a quarter of the Hunter campaign’s attorney monies. The office also specializes in “ongoing compliance, and defending against enforcement actions, administrative complaint and audit matters.” The firm received roughly $160,000 across eight separate payments in 2017 and 2018.

Financial history

Hunter repeatedly has not listed assets since the start of his time in Congress and ranks among the “poorest” members in Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress index. He has listed several forms of liabilities ranging from mortgages to credit cards, which puts him into the negative net worth category.

According to the Department of Justice’s indictment, Hunter and his wife were allegedly aware of their lack of fungible assets and sought to deceive campaign finance officials to finance personal expenses. The Hunters also overdrafted their bank accounts more than 1,100 times during the chronicled indictment.

The Hunter campaign sent an email Wednesday indicating he has no intent to end his bid for re-election. California has no procedure to remove Hunter from his ballot.

Katherine Tully-McManus and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. 

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