California Rep. Duncan Hunter is the quintessential Republican: war hero, solid family man, and the son of a long-serving, well-known politician.
But for all his preaching of fiscal responsibility, Hunter was not practicing the tenets of the conservative faith.
The New York Times stitched together from Hunter’s indictment, close friends and his own personal statements the revelation of a man living two separate lives: on the west coast, an everyday middle class American, but on Capitol Hill, a man of indugence.
In Alpine, Calif., a suburban Southern California enclave, Duncan Hunter was a good neighbor. He’d help people do yard work, or move heavy furniture. He drove the same dented-up truck for years. At parties, he’d have a beer, two tops, and he might go off and sneak a cigarette so his wife wouldn’t see. He rarely talked about his job as a congressman.
In Washington, Mr. Hunter was a fixture on the bar scene, and spent lavishly — over $400 for 30 tequila shots at a bachelor party, and countless fancy dinners. He visited one of his favorite bars sometimes multiple times a day, piling up thousands of dollars in tabs. On occasion, he would get into loud arguments with patrons, once over the choice of music on the jukebox (he hated Celine Dion).
“This is a tragic unraveling of someone who should probably never have gone to Congress,” said Nathan Fletcher, a former state assemblyman from San Diego who left the Republican Party in 2012.
Hunter’s misuse of campaign funds to help keep his personal finances afloat began shortly after his election to office in 2008, according to prosecutors.
He had returned from three combat tours as a Marine to seek public office — a move many believe came at his father’s direction.
While Mr. Hunter was in Washington, his wife, Margaret, mostly stayed in California, where she managed the campaign’s finances and struggled to keep up appearances with things like private school tuition, all on a $174,000-a-year congressman’s salary.
As 2009 was coming to a close, the United States was in the teeth of a financial crisis and Mr. Hunter was finishing his first year in office.
With the holidays approaching, Mr. Hunter addressed one of the primary concerns of his constituents: a desire for “greater financial freedom.”
“Most often, I hear concerns from working Americans about the future of their children and grandchildren, and the debt burden they will unfairly inherit,” he wrote.
However, behind the scenes, Hunter and his wife were filling in their personal financial gaps with campaign funds:
A few weeks later, Mr. Hunter showed up at an Alamo rental car agency in Reno, Nev., and with his own bank accounts nearly empty, the indictment says, he dipped into campaign funds to pay $351.04 for a rental car to drive to Lake Tahoe for a ski weekend. The document laid out an exhaustive list of expenses between 2010 and 2016 that prosecutors believe were paid for with campaign money.
Days later, there were more charges: $1,008.72, for food, drinks and a room for three nights at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort Spa and Casino.
Hunter’s financial records show he had just $15.02 in his bank account after withdrawing $20 during the Lake Tahoe trip.
And the spending continued from there, on everything from a $14,261.33 family vacation to Italy to $32.31 at the grocery store for milk, apples, beer, chewing tobacco and a pack of cigarettes, the Times noted.
In some cases, the Hunters tried to pass off personal spending as donations to charitable causes — a fact that particularly rubbed those in veterans’ circles.
[M]any veterans advocates say they were always skeptical of Mr. Hunter’s motives. Many have long referred to him as a “blue falcon,” military slang for someone willing to sacrifice his friends for his own benefit.
They say he would often intervene in newsworthy cases when a veteran was in trouble — as in one case when a veteran ended up in a Mexican jail. But when it came to supporting military-friendly policies, Mr. Hunter did little, they say.
“It’s clear he was doing it to get on Fox News and call himself a hero,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, who runs High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a nonprofit.
And there was also the partying in Washington that drew the concern of Hunter’s colleagues — a lifestyle also supplemented by campaign funds.
At one point, John Boehner, then the Republican leader, sat down him and his friends — known as the “bros caucus” — and told them to “knock off” their frat house antics, according to a person close to the Republican leadership at the time.
Mr. Hunter has been a regular at a number of bars near Capitol Hill, from the private Capitol Club to the congressional watering hole, Bullfeathers, just next door. There, the congressman could often be found on the patio with colleagues, drinking beer or vodka.
“He was here a lot, some days he was in here multiple times a day,” said Stephanie Connon, a manager at the bar.
“I did three tours. I take my experiences with me, but I never filed for post-traumatic stress. It’s not an issue.”
His current opponent believes Hunter might be mistaken:
Ammar Campa-Najjar, Mr. Hunter’s challenger in November, told Fox News after the indictment was issued, “I think that man who served our country never made it back from the battlefield, and I think Washington chewed him up and spat him out and he lost his way.”