How a Congressman’s Extramarital Affairs Could Undermine Campaign Spending Rules

Rep. Duncan Hunter’s defense lawyers are making a dangerous argument, argues Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

July 11, 2019

On June 25, 2019, federal prosecutors said that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) had used campaign funds to have affairs with five different women. Pointing to bar tabs and Uber receipts to the women’s houses, the court filing states that all the women “were involved in politics in some manner” — three of the women were lobbyists and two were congressional staffers (including one who worked in Hunter’s office).

The filing came 10 months after Hunter and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were charged with using campaign funds for personal use, and just days after Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty to misusing over $200,000.

According to the Justice Department, Margaret Hunter told authorities that she and her husband used campaign funds illegally to pay for private school for their children and trips to Italy, Las Vegas, and Disneyland, among other things. In her June 13 plea agreement, she admits that the couple was “living beyond their means,” overdrafting their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period.      

As the indictment against the Hunters states, campaign funds are “restricted to supporting the candidate’s election (or reelection) efforts or duties in office” in order to “prevent donors from exercising undue influence over candidates and federal officeholders.” 

In other words, converting campaign funds for personal enjoyment is not allowed. And there’s probably nothing more “personal” than the congressman’s love life.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the case, however, is Rep. Hunter’s legal defense against the latest allegation. His lawyers are arguing that having an affair with a lobbyist (or congressional staffer) is not a personal use of campaign funds and is thus permitted under the law. This is patently absurd. Again, paying for an affair is not an allowable campaign expense or even arguably related to his duties as a member of Congress.

According to his attorneys, “[Hunter’s] friendships often blur the line between personal and professional … [and] Mr. Hunter’s relationships with [his alleged girlfriends] often served an overtly political purpose.” In essence, Hunter’s lawyers are saying  no expenditure a sitting member of Congress makes with a lobbyist or staffer could violate campaign finance laws, even when it involves cheating on a spouse.

Troublingly, such bizarre arguments like this have won in court before. After all, Rod Blagojevich’s legal team convinced the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that the former Illinois governor’s attempts to secure a cabinet position in exchange for his appointment to fill Obama’s vacant Senate seat was not a crime, though he remains in prison on other charges. And the Supreme Court unanimously vacated former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s bribery conviction after his lawyers argued that accepting money and gifts from a businessman who wanted to sell tobacco pills to Virginia employees was not bribery since McDonnell didn’t do an official act in return. 

The case against Rep. Hunter seems pretty clear-cut. But so did the cases against Blagojevich and McDonnell. If his argument that affairs are proper use of campaign funds wins in the courts, this case has the potential to make some very bad precedent.

In the meantime, if Congress wanted to close the “Duncan Hunter loophole,” it could amend our federal campaign finance laws to make it explicit that paying for adultery with campaign funds is not allowed.

Congressman Hunter’s trial is scheduled to start on September 10. His wife is expected to testify against him.      

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Getty/Bill Clark)