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Campaign Finances Stir Up A San Diego Congressional Race

Susana Tsutsumi
The 50th Congressional District includes Alpine, Ramona, Julian, Borrego Springs, Escondido and Temecula.
Campaign Finances Stir Up A San Diego Congressional Race

The campaign finances of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, are getting plenty of scrutiny this election season.

Federal officials have inquired about questionable expenditures, and opponents are taking political shots as the candidate's staff does damage control.

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All that fuss may not add up to change on election day in the 50th Congressional District. But despite having overwhelmingly won four elections in the district and being on course to win another, questions have come up about the congressman's spending.

Campaign Finances Stir Up A San Diego Congressional Race
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter's campaign finance spending is under scrutiny. The Republican congressman from Alpine said some mistakes were made, money was paid back and an audit is expected to answer questions.

A 2015 campaign disclosure form reports that money was used for more than $1,300 worth of video game purchases at an online gaming site.

The congressman said it was a mistake by his son, and he held off repayment while trying to reverse the charges with the website.

The Federal Elections Commission also flagged a school tuition payment. The panel formally requested an explanation in a letter to Hunter that was delivered in April.

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Hunter has since paid back $12,000 of personal or mistaken charges to his campaign fund. That includes expenses on oral surgery, the private school tuition and purchase of a garage door.

There are also unanswered questions about spending charged to campaign credit cards, including groceries, gasoline and utility payments.

Those accounts are supervised by his treasurer and Hunter's wife, Margaret, who is his campaign manager.

Hunter didn't respond to interview requests and his chief of staff, Joe Kasper, wouldn't answer questions on the record. But Kasper did issue the following statement:

"Rep. Hunter identified certain problems and took immediate corrective action. He's doing a comprehensive, independent audit and will act on the recommendations. He's also coordinating with the F.E.C. right now to resolve the issue — to include the independent audit. He's absolutely committed to addressing the problems he identified."

Democrats speak out

Francine Busby, the San Diego County Democratic Party chair, issued a scathing public letter admonishing the congressman.

"It's just not fair. It's not right. And we deserve better and his constituents deserve better," Busby said.

She called Hunter an embarrassment. She said the unflattering media coverage points to the lawmaker's "incompetence, arrogance and dishonesty."

She hopes the FEC is objective and forthcoming with information about the audit of Hunter's campaign finances.

Federal Election Commission Letter
In this letter, the Federal Election Commission seeks more information about Duncan Hunter's 2015 campaign expenditures.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

"I believe that the investigations underway have to be completed. I believe that there has to be some sort of judgement," Busby said. "I don't think it's going to have to happen by June. I don't think it's going to happen by November. But I don't think it should go without investigation. I don't think it should go without some kind of accountability and, if necessary, some kind of punishment."

Busby wants the voters in this rural district to cast votes for another candidate, but the Democratic Party is hardly offering a viable alternative. It's endorsing the candidate Patrick Malloy, who has raised no money for the contest. Busby admits Malloy's candidacy is a long shot.

"I'm not suggesting a Democrat is going to be able to win in that district, I understand that. But it doesn't mean that he shouldn't be held accountable. ... This is serious," Busby said.

Tough for an outsider to win here

Political consultant Laura Fink thinks an opposition candidate faces an uphill battle in the 50th District. The district's registered voters are overwhelmingly Republican and incumbents have a huge fundraising advantage. Even so, she thinks a solid challenge can be mounted.

Nicholas McVicker
Political consultant Laura Fink discusses the campaign finance questions and how they might impact Duncan Hunter's political career on May 17, 2016.

"Weakness in an incumbent is revealed when mistakes like these are made and when public hiccups happen. So if there's any opportunity, it is under these sorts of circumstances," Fink said.

Timing plays a role in the incumbent's vulnerability.

The campaign finance questions weren't made public until after the slate of candidates was set.

That made it tough to field a strong candidate. Fink said the real opportunity for change comes in a future election cycle. Members of the House of Representatives have to run every two years.

"I think there needs to be a viable candidate, with backing and financing that appeals to the political ideology of the district, which right now, even though the registration gap is narrowing, is a solidly Republican district," Fink said.

If the FEC finds wrongdoing, that could play a role in the congressman's political future, Fink said.

Kasper, Hunter's spokesman, said the congressman's office employed a Washington, D.C. law firm to conduct a thorough audit of campaign finances. The results of that audit will be shared with the commission.

The audit is not expected to be completed before the June 7 primary.

Corrected: January 28, 2023 at 10:01 PM PST
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the congressman as Duncan Hunter Jr. He is not a junior. The story has been updated.