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How A Congressman Was Brought Down By Brazenly Illegal Campaign Spending

Former U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and his wife Margaret used his campaign credit card like their own personal piggy bank, paying for groceries, their children's tuition, and lavish vacations.

By Jill Sederstrom
Duncan Hunter Margaret Ap

Duncan D. Hunter had a powerful political pedigree and was already making his own mark in Congress when a scandal brought the U.S. Representative’s integrity into question and abruptly ended his political career.

A federal investigation would uncover that Hunter—whose father Duncan Lee Hunter served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 30 years—and his wife, Margaret, had been inappropriately spending campaign money, using donor funds to purchase groceries, pay their children’s private school tuition and even take a lavish family trip overseas, according to a new episode of CNBC's “American Greed,” airing Mondays at 10 p.m.

“Duncan and Margaret Hunter embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars by stealing the money from their campaign,” former Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Halpern told producers.

Investigators would also uncover secret expenses Duncan accrued on his own while carrying out a series of affairs and enjoying a party boy lifestyle in Washington D.C., once spending more than $400 at a restaurant on 30 shots of tequila and a steak.

But his womanizing would soon catch up with him, when Margaret decided to cooperate with federal authorities in a plea deal that required her to turn against her husband and testify about what she knew.

Before Margaret could ever take the stand, Duncan pleaded guilty in December 2019 to conspiracy to steal campaign funds and resigned from Congress several months later after intense bipartisan pressure.

“It would be so simple to say in this case, that the victims were the campaign supporters, who gave him money expecting that it would be used only for the campaign, but that’s only part of the story, the true victims include every single person that he represents in San Diego and Riverside County,” Halpern said.

A Promising Start

Duncan’s first exposure to politics came early in life after his father, Duncan Lee Hunter, a Vietnam veteran and staunch Ronald Reagan-era Republican won his seat in Congress in 1981, when Duncan was just 4 years old.

“The Duncan Hunter name, and just the Hunter name, has a really powerful impact in that area because Duncan’s dad was very, very popular,” Charles Clark, a reporter San Diego Union Tribune, told “American Greed.”

Duncan Lee Hunter’s successful 28-year career as a congressman would even lead his oldest son to meet his future wife, Margaret. Margaret, a former refugee from Poland, had been volunteering for Duncan Lee Hunter when she met the younger Duncan and the two began dating.

“According to court filings, she never wanted him to have a life in politics and they had discussed it and he said that he wasn’t going to have a life in politics,” San Diego Union Tribune reporter Morgan Cook, who would later break the story on the Hunter’s illegal spending, told “American Greed.”

The couple got married and moved in with his parents while Duncan got his degree in business administration from San Diego State University.

But whatever plans the couple had for their future would take an abrupt shift after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Duncan decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps without telling his new bride and would go on the serve several tours of combat duty in Iraq.

He returned home in 2006 and the family settled in Boise, Idaho, where Duncan worked in real estate.

Margaret loved the quiet life, but the couple’s life in Idaho would be short-lived. In 2007, Duncan Lee Hunter announced he planned to run for president in 2008 and his son opted to move the family back to California so he could vie for his father’s seat in Congress.

“She was not thrilled about that but wanted to support him anyway,” Cook said.

Questionable Spending

Duncan won the election by double digits, earning him a new salary of $174,000 a year, but the couple soon found themselves in serious financial trouble.

“I don’t want to impugn him or his family for not being wealthy, but what we’re talking about is something different, just a total lack of basic budgeting ability for his family and completely spending well beyond his means,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen said.

As early as late 2009, Duncan requested campaign credit cards for himself and Margaret—who quickly began using the card for her own personal expenses.

“Almost instantly from getting that campaign credit card, it was a license to steal,” Halpern said.

She spent $239 at a craft store, $700 on theater tickets, $11,500 at Costco and used to the card to pay for dental bills and private school tuition.

When Duncan’s staff began to question the purchases and asked for information and receipts, she provided vague explanations.

“If she took her kids out to eat at Olive Garden, she told the campaign treasurer that that was a meal with supporters,” FBI Special Agent Erin Phan said. “If she purchased things at retail stores, she told the treasurer that those were basket gift items for auctions.”

Duncan’s staff worried that the spending could trigger an audit from the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign spending and requires quarterly reports—but at least initially, the spending went unchecked.  

Duncan told staff he would be “trying to reign [Margaret] in,” yet in 2011, he opted to make her his campaign manager.

He was also making his own questionable expenditures. He used the campaign credit card to fund a vacation with his mistress and pay for heavy nights of drinking.

“In Washington he became part of a group of GOP freshman congressman who were known as the quote unquote ‘Bro Congress.’ They were famous for going out and spending hundreds of dollars every night in all these night clubs and bars,” Tina Nguyen, a reporter for Politico told “American Greed.” “There was this one that he spent $450-something on 30 shots of tequila and one steak.”

Text messages between the couple also showed that they tried to find ways to hide their spending.

“I am going to buy my Hawaii shorts,” Duncan texted Margaret. “I need my $ babe.”

She replies that he should “Do a small pro shop purchase with your work card,” adding that he should “get some balls for the wounded warriors” to make the expense appear legitimate.

The couple often used the card to charge small $20 purchases, further illustrating that the couple was living well beyond their means, authorities said.

Their personal credit cards were maxed, they were habitually late on their mortgage and they had incurred over $35,000 in insufficient funds fees in a five-year-period.

“The financial strain that the Hunters were under was a huge source of stress and a huge motivating factor for committing the crime was probably to alleviate some of that stress, because that takes a toll on your relationships, that takes a toll on your marriage,” Allen said.

By the spring of 2016, the Federal Election Commission had caught wind of the couple’s spending and questioned 70 charges that had been made for video games along with more than $1,000 for private school tuition.

Duncan initially had a simple explanation for the charges.

“He had told his teenage son that he could take his credit card out of his wallet, you know his personal credit card, to stream video games online and his son just took the wrong card,” Cook said. “The payment to the children’s private school, was supposed to be a charitable donation but had been mistakenly applied to tuition.”

Under Investigation

The incident caused Cook to delve further into the Congressman’s past spending, but she encountered a road block after discovering that the Federal Election Commission doesn’t require anyone to report expenses less than $200, keeping some of the couple’s charges hidden.

But, federal attorneys and the FBI had also started to take notice and begin an in-depth investigation in 2016.

Just five days before his 2016 re-election, Duncan told his voters he had ordered a personal financial review and paid the FEC about $48,000 to correct his errors and promised to pay back even more.

He was re-elected once again, but the couple had to sell their house and move in with his parents to pay back the money.

Two years later, in August of 2018, federal prosecutors announce a 60-count indictment against the couple for wire fraud, falsifying records and campaign finance violations.

Hunter initially tried to pass the blame to his wife, telling national media outlets that his wife had handled all the couple’s finances.

Margaret quietly sought her revenge by agreeing to testify against her husband in exchange for a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

“Margaret Hunter wasn’t a saint. She committed campaign theft, arm in arm with her husband, but yet he’s throwing her under the bus. Well, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Halpern said.   

In exchange, she received an eight-month sentence of home confinement.

Just weeks before his trial was scheduled to begin, Duncan pleaded guilty in December 2019 to the “lead charge” of conspiracy to steal campaign funds.

He was sentenced to 11 months in prison, but the sentence was delayed until January of 2021 due to COVID-19. However, Duncan never ended up serving any time in prison because just weeks before his sentence was slated to begin, then-President Donald Trump issued a full pardon for the disgraced former congressman and his wife.

Despite the fact that he avoided punishment, authorities said Duncan’s illegal activities still cost him his reputation and his seat in Congress.

“For all the other elected officials out there, not only can you get caught, but you will get caught and you will be prosecuted and you will go to jail,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said.

Watch “American Greed” on CNBC, Mondays at 10 p.m.

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