Rep. Duncan Hunter's campaign spent on trip to Las Vegas amid probe
SAN DIEGO — Rep. Duncan Hunter's latest financial filings show his campaign continues to incur expenses at places such as cigar lounges, where he has previously said he prefers to hold small-scale fundraising events.
His campaign spent $353 on “food/beverages” at Alpine Tobacco Company, a smoking lounge. The first-quarter report also shows Hunter's campaign paid a $1,042 hotel bill at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and spent $896 at one of the hotel's bars, The Chandelier, where patrons can drink inside a huge crystal chandelier.
Hunter, R-Calif., has reimbursed more than $60,000 in mistaken, personal or undocumented expenditures to his treasury since the Federal Election Commission and The San Diego Union-Tribune began questioning his expenses a year ago.
More recently, the House Ethics Committee announced that it would halt an inquiry into Hunter's spending in deference to a federal criminal investigation. Use of campaign funds for personal benefit is illegal, to avoid undue influence by contributors such as defense contractors, whose bottom line can be affected by decisions in Congress.
Hunter's office did not respond to questions about the official or campaign-related reasons for the recent travel to Las Vegas or the charges at the smoking lounge. After a previous Union-Tribune story about spending at cigar lounges, spokesman Joe Kasper sent an email to supporters saying all the expenses were permissible.
“Hunter holds events at cigar lounges and has raised money there — in one instance, folks from D.C. were in the area and Hunter hosted a small fundraiser,” the email said. “In fact, Hunter prefers small events over large ones, and the idea that only big events can occur is ridiculous. It's also not uncommon for members of Congress to support campaign staff, volunteers and supporters through campaign funds.
“So the mere suggestion that something occurred out of the parameters of permissible expenses is dead wrong.”
The campaign reported paying the Chandelier bar on Jan. 11, and the hotel charge on Jan. 19. The campaign reported one contribution around those dates — $500 from David A. Whelan, a Boeing Co. executive from California, on Jan. 17. It was the first contribution the campaign reported receiving in January. The campaign received two contributions on Jan. 23 and four on Jan. 29.
The latest campaign reports also show Hunter spent $69,000 in legal fees and paid $9,000 in campaign consulting fees to his wife, Margaret.
The campaign reported receiving $146,000 in the quarter, with significant support from defense contractors. The final balance of funds in the treasury was $701,000.
The campaign has been under scrutiny since the unusual spending came to light in April 2016. Hunter has reimbursed the campaign treasury for charges including video games, oral surgery, private school tuition, a garage door and a family trip to Italy.
The charges Hunter has reimbursed included thousands of dollars for gas fill-ups, groceries, fast food and items purchased from department stores — all of which could be legitimate campaign expenses, but also have a lot in common with the expenses of a typical suburban family.
The new spending report shows no charges for gas, grocery stores, fast food or department stores.
Hunter has denied involvement in any “criminal activity” and attributed the charges in question to innocent mistakes and mix-ups between his campaign and personal credit cards, both of which are blue.
At least $16,500 of the money Hunter's campaign raised during the first quarter of the year came from people associated with the Louisiana-based shipbuilder Edison Chouest Offshore and two of its subsidiaries, Galliano Marine Services and Bollinger Shipyards.
On Feb. 22, the U.S. Coast Guard - overseen by a subcommittee Hunter chairs - announced that Bollinger Shipyards was one of five companies awarded about $20 million in fixed-price contracts for design studies for faster, less-expensive production of new ice-breaking ships.
The Union-Tribune reported last year that Hunter was pushing the Coast Guard to lease or buy the Aiviq, an icebreaker owned by Edison Chouest Offshore even though Coast Guard officials had insisted the ship did not meet its needs without significant upgrades.
The five icebreaker contract-winners also included General Dynamics/NASSCO. The company's political action committee reported contributing $1,500 to Hunter's campaign Feb. 15 and another $2,500 on Feb. 26.
Edison Chouest Offshore did not respond to the Union-Tribune's request for comment. A spokesperson for General Dynamics/NASSCO declined to comment.
A spokesman for Hunter's office provided a statement in response to questions about the contracts and campaign contributions.
“It's no secret that Congressman Hunter is a champion for his constituents and for the American defense industry,” the statement said. “To suggest that any official action he may have taken was related in any way to a campaign contribution is categorically false, and it's worth noting that all contracting selection decisions are made by the United States Coast Guard and not by the Congress.”