US House race uncertain after Hunter indictment

SERIOUS CHARGES::The Republican lawmaker and his wife spent campaign funds on everything from movie tickets to a US$6,288.74 vacation, prosecutors said

AP, SAN DIEGO, California

Thu, Aug 23, 2018 - Page 7

Despite an ongoing FBI investigation into his campaign spending, US Representative Duncan Hunter coasted through the June primary election in California largely unscathed, finishing first by a 30-point margin and establishing himself as a strong favorite to hold the seat in November.

That has now changed.

On Tuesday, the Republican and his wife were charged by a federal grand jury with using more than US$250,000 in campaign funds to finance family trips to Italy and Hawaii, golf outings, school tuition, theater tickets and even fast food purchases, and attempting to conceal the illegal spending in federal records.

The 48-page indictment brings a jolt of uncertainty into the contest, in a year when the Democrats have targeted a string of Republican-held US House of Representatives seats across California.

“People disregard a lot of political issues, but the word indictment catches their attention,” Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney said.

In the strongly Republican district, “Hunter is probably still the favorite, but not as overwhelmingly as he was before,” Pitney said.

Asked for comment, a Hunter spokesman sent an Aug. 6 letter from Hunter’s attorney, Gregory Vega, to US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein asking him to postpone the indictment.

Vega contended that there was a “rush to indict.”

There was “politically motivated” pressure to wrap up the investigation in order to tarnish Hunter before the general election after he handily won a June primary, Vega said.

Hunter was among the earliest Republican members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump as a Republican presidential candidate, and Vega’s letter suggested his outspoken support made him a target for what he described as politically biased prosecutors.

The indictment depicts a couple freely dipping into campaign cash for years to bankroll their personal lifestyle, while their household budget was awash in red ink.

The spending ranged from the banal to lavish, from movie tickets to US$6,288.74 for Hunter to take his family on a vacation to a resort in Lahaina, Hawaii.

In a statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan called the charges “deeply serious” and said Hunter would removed from his committee assignments, pending resolution of the case.

US House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Ryan should call on Hunter to resign.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat and potential 2020 presidential contender, used Twitter to urge her supporters to donate to Hunter’s Democratic rival, Ammar Campa-Najjar, underscoring the race’s new dynamics.

Hunter is a familiar name in the 50th congressional district in San Diego and Riverside counties — his father held the seat for years.

University of California, San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser said that Hunter would be on safe ground if the race centered on the Trump agenda in an area with a Republican pedigree.

Now, the indictment “makes it a race about [Hunter], about corruption and in some ways ties him to Donald Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities,” Kousser said, referring to the US president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, on Tuesday pleading guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges on the same day that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of eight financial crimes.

Another early Trump supporter, US Representative Chris Collins, ended his re-election bid this month, days after his indictment on insider trading charges.

Campa-Najjar, stopped short of calling on Hunter to resign.

“I think justice should run its course,” he said.

Campa-Najjar said Hunter was “in it for his own interests” and that it is time to “get rid of the corruption and greed that has held Washington captive for too long.”

The California secretary of state’s office says there is no process in the elections code for Hunter to remove his name from the ballot, and there can be no write-in candidates for the November election.

In a statement, California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte said “individuals are presumed innocent” until a jury convicts them.

“The congressman and his wife have a constitutional promise to their day in court and we will not prejudge the outcome,” Brulte said.