Congress

Rep. Duncan Hunter has almost depleted his legal expense fund

California Republican faces mounting legal bills as his team prepares for trial in January

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has spent over $60,000 from his legal expense fund. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Duncan Hunter has spent almost all of his money from a legal expense fund, a potentially bleak harbinger leading up to his fast-approaching trial in January for allegedly using campaign money for personal use, financial filings show.

The Duncan D. Hunter Legal Expense Trust has spent $60,562.41 as of the most recent filing, which was received by the Legislative Resource Center on July 26. Hunter’s legal expense fund has received $68,800 total, some of which is from powerful donors who have also contributed to Hunter’s reelection efforts.

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That leaves Hunter with only a few thousand dollars currently in the fund to pay for high-priced lawyers. Typically, lawyers of the caliber that Hunter has on his team charge hundreds of dollars per hour. Hunter’s trust is disconnected from his political campaign treasury, which has paid at least $682,100 to lawyers since June 2016, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The House Ethics Committee allows a legal expense fund for a member when legal fees arise in connection with the individual’s candidacy or election to federal office, the member’s official duties in office, a criminal prosecution or a civil matter bearing on the person’s reputation or fitness for office. 

The California Republican and his wife, Margaret, were indicted in August 2018 on charges that they spent over $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses and falsified campaign finance records.

Hunter allegedly spent campaign money on vacations, golf outings and bar tabs. Margaret pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds and she faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Hunter’s trial in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California is slated to begin on Jan. 14, 2020.

To date, Hunter has paid $41,000 to Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, the San Diego law firm that represents him in his criminal trial on allegedly converting campaign funds for his personal enrichment. Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney, is one of Hunter’s lead lawyers on the case from the firm.

The most recent filing, which covers expenditures from April 1 to June 30, reports no deposits. There is an $18,500 payment to Vega’s firm and a $15,000 disbursement to George Terwilliger III, a partner at the law firm McGuire Woods. Both of those are dated June 27, 2019, and say they are for “legal services.” Neither Terwilliger nor Vega responded to a request for comment.

The law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky received $4,562.41 in 2018. Jason Torchinsky, a partner at the firm, said they represent Hunter’s campaign committee.

Daryl C. Idler Jr., the trustee of Hunter’s legal expense fund, said the trust is a congressional, permissive trust. Idler, an attorney who is semi-retired, said he used to be a managing partner at Cottonwood Golf Club in El Cajon, California, a course at which the indictment alleges Hunter used campaign funds to pay for rounds of golf. Hunter’s father, former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, still plays golf at Cottonwood.

Idler has donated to Hunter’s campaigns in the past.

William Brandt, the owner of Brandt Company Inc. in California, donated $5,000 to Hunter’s legal expense fund in March 2018. Brandt has also donated $2,500 to Duncan D. Hunter for Congress this year, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Brandt has also contributed to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes.

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the liberal group Public Citizen, said there is a need for the legal expense fund and, when used correctly, it provides a necessary function for members to avoid financial ruin.

“Government officials are often subject to litigation, and this legal expense fund provides a reasonable way for officials to help finance their litigation problems without declaring bankruptcy,” Holman said.

Holman added that the legal expense fund “does provide donors to a campaign the opportunity to make another donation to the official, but as long as it’s capped at a reasonable level, I see these providing a greater good than a harm.”

Under House Ethics Committee rules, a fund cannot accept more than $5,000 in a calendar year from an individual or organization. Also, funds cannot accept contributions from registered lobbyists or foreign agents.

Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which describes itself as nonpartisan, said, “As a general rule, legal defense funds are an obvious concern because generally speaking the same folks who donate to them also donate to someone’s campaign. There are fewer restrictions on who may donate and raise some of the same questions that campaign contributions raise.”

Gary Chouest, president of Edison Chouest Offshore in Louisiana, has donated to Hunter in the past, as well as other members of Congress, including GOP Reps. Don Young of Alaska and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Chouest donated $5,000 to Hunter’s legal defense fund in May of 2018.

Forrest Brehm, a real estate developer in California, has previously donated to Hunter’s campaign and also gave $5,000 to the legal expense fund. 

Hunter did not respond to an email request for comment.

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