One of Donald Trump’s first congressional allies could be headed for the slammer. Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican congressman famous for vaping in a committee hearing, is facing scrutiny from the Justice Department for some questionable campaign expenditures he made.
The House Ethics Committee announced Thursday afternoon they were putting their own Hunter inquiry on ice to let the DOJ take the lead. The news was first reported by Politico. Hunter’s lawyer told the site he didn’t do anything wrong and that he repaid the misused funds.
It isn’t yet clear what charges Hunter could face, if any. But the House Committee’s report (PDF) gives some clues:
“Rep. Hunter may have converted tens of thousands of dollars of campaign funds from his congressional campaign committee to personal use to pay for family travel, flights, utilities, health care, school uniforms and tuition, jewelry, groceries, and other goods, services, and expenses,” it reads. “If Rep. Hunter converted funds from his congressional campaign committee for personal use, then he may have violated House rules, standards of conduct, and federal law.”
When it comes to politicians using campaign funds for personal enrichment, this ain’t the Justice Department’s first rodeo. In fact, it had a very similar case just a few years ago. On Aug. 14, 2013, the department announced a federal judge had sentenced disgraced Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to 30 months in prison for using about $750,000 of his campaign cash to pay for his own personal expenses including a Rolex, a refrigerator, and movie tickets.
Hunter’s hometown paper, meanwhile, reported last year that he used campaign money to pay for video games, his kids’ private school tuition, and items for sale in the Disneyland gift shop.
“Personal use of campaign funds can be a crime under the Federal Election Campaign Act if it is done knowingly and willfully,” said Brett Kappel, a longtime campaign finance lawyer. “That’s why Jesse Jackson Jr. went to prison.”
Kappel noted that the facts of the two cases are very similar, though with two big differences: Jackson used campaign funds illegally over a much longer period of time (seven years), and he spent significantly more money than Hunter allegedly did. Jackson also pled guilty.
Hunter isn’t the only member of Congress to draw federal scrutiny. After resigning from his Illinois seat amid scandal, Rep. Aaron Schock was indicted in federal court on 24 counts, including allegations that he had his campaign committee file incorrect reports with the Federal Elections Commission to cover up his efforts to enrich himself.