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Almost exactly two years after former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was sentenced to 11 months in prison for campaign finance violations—and more than a year after then-President Donald Trump pardoned him—the Federal Election Commission has finally gotten around to the case.
The agency published its decision on Thursday: Those involved will pay two fines, for a grand total of only $16,000.
Hunter had committed what were widely seen as among the most flagrant personal use violations in recent history. Over a period of several years, he and his wife—Margaret Hunter, who doubled as his campaign manager—stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account and spent it on personal items like vacations, gifts, groceries, oral surgery, and credit card bills. Hunter himself was accused of using thousands of dollars in donor money to fund numerous extramarital affairs, including with multiple lobbyists and a Republican aide.
Margaret Hunter, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2018 and cooperated against her husband, served eight months under house arrest. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds in December 2019, resigned from Congress the next month, and was sentenced to 11 months in prison in March 2020.
He didn’t serve a day, however, and along with his wife received a full pardon from Trump in December 2020.
Although the Justice Department administers criminal statutes of campaign finance law, of which there are relatively few, the FEC retains jurisdiction for civil violations. And so, a full two years after sentencing and nearly four years after the initial 60-count indictment, the FEC, in a rare unanimous 6-0 vote, finally moved on the Hunters.
First they had to get past the pardon. Although the general counsel’s report acknowledged that courts have not “squarely addressed” whether presidential pardon powers extend to civil violations, the text of Trump’s pardon in this case, the report concluded, was narrow and “directed squarely at the criminal conviction and resulting punishment.”
But in contrast to the drama and consequences of the criminal matter, the civil comeuppance appears muted—a $12,000 personal fine for the Hunters, and a $4,000 penalty for the campaign and its treasurer, Republican operative Chris Marston.
The conciliation agreement with the campaign acknowledges that in “ordinary circumstances,” the FEC would assess a $133,000 penalty for violations of this magnitude. But in this case the agency went easy, reasoning that the committee—which according to FEC data counts $14,000 in the bank, with debts of $40,000—had “demonstrated a lack of financial resources” and “an inability to raise additional funds.”
The Hunters, for their part, pledged not to contest the decision and acquiesced to the fine “without admitting liability.” But another passage in their agreement says explicitly that they do “accept non-knowing and willful liability” for failing to comply with the civil law against personal use.
That document also notes that the commission weighed a series of explanations from the estranged couple, who according to filings in San Diego Family Court, will finalize their divorce settlement in May. One of them: “Respondents contend that many of the violations are attributable to the nature of a tight-knit, family-run campaign.”
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