Duncan Hunter Under Criminal Investigation for Ethics Violations

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into a California congressman who faces allegations that he spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on family trips to Hawaii and Italy, private school tuition and dance competitions for his children, and even video games, officials disclosed Thursday.

Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican from San Diego who was considered for several top national security posts in President Trump’s administration, became the latest in a string of at least eight current or former members of Congress to face criminal investigations over ethics issues in the last several years.

A five-term congressman, Mr. Hunter has already paid back $60,000 to his political campaign to correct what he said were mistaken payments for personal items.

But that has not cleared him of scrutiny.

The House Ethics Committee, which has been examining Mr. Hunter’s possible misuse of campaign funds, said in a statement on Thursday that it would put its review on hold at the request of the Justice Department.

Typically, the Justice Department asks the ethics committee to hold off on a review because it has opened a criminal investigation of its own. A person with knowledge of the case said prosecutors have notified Mr. Hunter of their criminal investigation.

“Congressman Hunter intends to cooperate fully with the government on this investigation, and maintains that to the extent any mistakes were made they were strictly inadvertent and unintentional,” said Mr. Hunter’s lawyers, Elliot S. Berke and Gregory A. Vega.

The lawyers said that Mr. Hunter learned of the possible ethics issues last year and “out of an abundance of caution, he took corrective action,” by repaying about $60,000.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the case on Thursday.

Mr. Hunter’s Democratic opponent in last year’s election tried to make the mounting reports of the congressman’s legal problems a campaign issue. But Mr. Hunter easily won re-election.

Mr. Hunter, first elected in 2008 to take his father’s seat, was an early congressional supporter of Mr. Trump’s long-shot bid for president.

As a former Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan who now sits on the House Armed Services Committee, he was seen as a possible choice for defense secretary or another top job in the Trump administration. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune days after Mr. Trump’s election that he wanted to restore “a warrior culture, a warrior mentality” to the government.

A confidential referral to the ethics committee by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was made public on Thursday, detailed the wide scope of his possible campaign violations.

Mr. 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,” said the ethics office, an independent body that House Republicans tried to shut down in January.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, brought a complaint with the ethics office last April charging that Mr. Hunter’s campaign spending included family trips to Italy and Hawaii, consulting fees to his wife, payments to his children’s parochial school and $1,300 for video games that he said his teenage son mistakenly charged to a credit card.

Noah Bookbinder, the group’s director, said Mr. Hunter “has shown a blatant disregard for the rules.” He called the case “the most egregious congressional spending scandal since Aaron Schock,” referring to the former Republican congressman from Illinois who gained infamy for decorating his House office in an ornate manner inspired by “Downton Abbey.” Mr. Schock was indicted by the Justice Department last November on 24 criminal counts and has pleaded not guilty.

Originally published in New York Times on March 23, 2017.