It was January 2017 and all the free-floating partisan angst in Congress had zeroed in on a single picture. The acrylic painting, winner of an annual congressional art competition, was done by a St. Louis high school student and chosen by Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, to grace a wall at the U.S. Capitol.
But the image sparked controversy. Nodding to the growing protests over police brutality, the picture portrayed law enforcement officers as uniformed, gun-wielding pigs. Police officials cried foul. Conservative media outlets cranked up the outrage.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-California, did something about it. The Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran marched over to where the painting was hanging and wrenched it down.
“I was angry,” Hunter later told FoxNews.com. “I’ve seen the press [reporting] on this for about a week or so. . . . I’m in the Marine Corps. If you want it done, just call us.”
The bold move synced perfectly with the reputation Hunter had steadily built for himself in Congress as a young, San Diego-area conservative who stuck to his principles. This was the congressman who defiantly puffed an e-cigarette in a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting in 2016 to prove a point. He once said the Navy secretary’s plan to put women in combat roles in the U.S. military was “a greater threat to the Marine Corps than ISIS.” An early Donald Trump backer, Hunter gleefully told a bar filled with fellow California GOP members last year that the president was “an –hole, but he’s our –hole.”
Brash, contemptuous of politically-correct pieties, a red-meat conservative – it all helped cement the 41-year-old Hunter as an on-the-make congressman strapped in for a long and influential Washington career.
That promise was shattered this week. On Tuesday, Hunter and his wife, Margaret E. Hunter, were indicted by federal prosecutors in San Diego on five charges, including wire fraud, prohibited use of campaign contribution, and conspiracy.
According to a 47-page indictment, the pair illegally dipped into campaign accounts to feed a lifestyle of excess. Prosecutors alleged the Hunters siphoned $250,000 in campaign funds while their own bank accounts regularly ran dry. The indictment comes as Hunter faces reelection in November.
The allegations detail runaway spending that included vacations to Italy and trips to SeaWorld, Mother’s Day brunches and dental work, overdue cable and water bills, golf outings and NFL tickets, movie passes and private school tuition, meals at Taco Bell and Panda Express, travel to dance competition and family funerals, a $250 plane ticket for a family pet, and $462 for 30 tequila shots and a steak during a bachelor party in Washington, D.C.
“Elected representatives should jealously guard the public’s trust, not abuse their positions for personal gain,” U.S. attorney Adam Braverman said Tuesday in a news release. “Today’s indictment is a reminder that no one is above the law.”
A spokesperson for Hunter told CNN the indictment was “purely politically motivated.” The couple are scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday.
The couple’s indictment represents the implosion of a once-mighty Southern California political dynasty. Hunter came to politics through his father, Duncan L. Hunter Sr., a powerful, former California congressman. First riding to Washington on the momentum of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, Hunter Sr. eventually rose to power on Capitol Hill through 14 terms in Congress, and even made his own quixotic run for the presidency in 2008. Both father and son defined their politics with strong conservative values, including an unflinching support of the military.
“This is going to be a long, tough battle,” Hunter Sr. told KUSI News in San Diego following the indictment, The Washington Post reported. “We’re going to fight it out, we’re going to win and we’re going to win the election.”
Hunter Sr. was born in Riverside, California, in 1948, the son of a World War II Marine Corps artillery officer. He dropped out of college to fight in Vietnam, serving as an Army Ranger paratrooper between 1969 and 1971, U.S. News reported. After 24 helicopter combat assaults, Hunter Sr. was awarded a Bronze Star. He later went back to school and became a criminal defense attorney.
The younger Hunter’s own marriage was the result of his father’s political career. In 1998, Hunter Jr. married Margaret Jankowski; the two met when she was a volunteer on one of his father’s congressional campaigns. Hunter himself earned a business administration degree from San Diego State University in 2001. According to his campaign website, he paid his way through school designing websites and working with databases. But he abandoned a career as a business analyst following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, opting to join the Marine Corps in 2002.
In 2003, Hunter landed in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division as a lieutenant in the field artillery. During his second tour, Hunter was in the middle of the intense combat surrounding the Iraqi city of Fallujah, and eventually rose to the rank of major.
According to a 2009 interview with The Hill, those early tours in Iraq steered the younger Hunter toward a political career. “That got me interested a little bit into being able to help that change so that if we ever go to war [again], we can do it and not have politics be the deciding factor on tactical decision-making,” he said. Hunter was honorably discharged in 2005 and entered the Marine Corps Reserve, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In October 2006, Hunter Sr. announced he would run for president. As part of his stab at higher office, the elder Hunter said he would not seek reelection for his congressional seat. Instead, Hunter Jr. announced he was seeking his father’s vacated position.
“I’m running under my own credentials,” Hunter told the Associated Press in 2007. “The U.S. Congress needs more military veterans, people who have walked the walk and when they talk the talk aren’t accused of being disingenuous.”
Hunter’s own time on the campaign trail was short-lived. Not long after announcing his run, Hunter was called back to active military duty and shipped to Afghanistan. His wife, Margaret, served as his surrogate on the stump.
“I’d call home and talk about the weather, ask how the kids were, and that was that,” Hunter recounted to The Hill. “I would Google myself to try to see what my campaign was doing back in San Diego.”
Hunter, then 30, won the campaign, becoming the first Marine elected to Congress who had seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Congress, Hunter – like his father – was a vocal advocate of the military as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. This stance often brought him into conflict with the Obama administration’s approach to overseas combat. After Trump’s election, Hunter praised the philosophical shift the president promised to bring to the American military.
“I’m excited about a warrior culture, a warrior mentality put back into the (military), as opposed to a corporate culture ruled over by the bureaucrats and lawyers,” Hunter told Task and Purpose.
According to the federal indictment, Margaret Hunter worked on her husband’s congressional runs. Between 2010 and 2017, she was paid by his campaign “$116,000 for ‘management services,’ ‘consulting,’ and ‘salary.’” At the same time, Margaret Hunter also allegedly had access to campaign funds “through campaign debit cards, credit cards, and reimbursements for funds expended on behalf of the Campaign.”
But those funds were steered repeatedly to non-campaign related expenses, the government alleges. The couple also allegedly attempted to hide their illegal spending by falsely inventing campaign-related reasons for the spending. For example, in the indictment, prosecutors say the couple bought personal clothing at a golf course to falsely report the expense as “balls for the wounded warriors.”
Similarly, in November 2015, the couple allegedly spent more than $14,000 on a family vacation to Italy. According to the indictment, in an attempt to justify the use of campaign funds for the visit, the Hunters “attempted to set up a day tour of a U.S. naval facility in Italy,” the indictment says. Naval officials responded they could only provide such a tour on a particular date.
“[T]ell the Navy to go (expletive) themselves,” Hunter allegedly told his chief of staff, according to the court filing.