The night before the first day of the 115th U.S. Congress, House Republicans voted to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) behind closed doors. Yet they quickly abandoned the secret maneuver, which was opposed by Democrats, Speaker Paul Ryan, and even President-elect Donald Trump — though for not-so-selfless reasons. The resulting 24-hour media blitz gave the OCE the most attention since its founding in 2008 following the tumultuous scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which pressured lawmakers to found the nonpartisan group charged with keeping the U.S. House (and its own Ethics Committee) in line.
The result? Renewed local and national interest in what certain members of congress and their staff were up to, and whether or not those who promoted the initial “gutting” were under investigation by the OCE. Sure enough, California Rep. Duncan Hunter — the Internet-famous “vaping congressman” who was previously caught using campaign funds to purchase video games — was one of the proposal’s proponents. And according to the Press-Enterprise newspaper in California’s Riverside County, he’s currently under review by the OCE for “inappropriate” campaign expenses, or expenditures made in “error.”
One of the more colorful instances of financial discrepancy involves Hunter flying his family’s pet rabbit to the tune of $600:
“(The office) has in their report $600 in campaign expenditures for in cabin rabbit transport fees,” [Hunter’s spokesperson Joe Kasper] said. “Since travel is often done on (airline) miles — which is entirely permissible — the credit card connected to the account was charged several times even when his children were flying.”
In defending the congressman against the OCE, Kasper reiterates Hunter’s “disputing the (office) process” and argues the rabbit’s $600 flight charges were “nothing more than an oversight,” or “such an obvious example of a mistake being made.” Yet the OCE tends to view supposedly honest mistakes like these “with intent,” hence why Hunter and his fellow House Republicans wanted to severely delimit the OCE’s authority over them.
“Many of Representative Hunter’s repayments had to do with mistakes under specific circumstances,” Kasper added. “And in other cases there were bona fide campaign activities connected to expenditures that (the office) was not aware of and didn’t account for.”
Perhaps there are instances in which members of congress targeted by the OCE for financial discrepancies ultimately committed no crime. Maybe, as Kasper claims regarding Hunter’s family rabbit, expenses like these truly were the result of a mistake made by either party. (Or both.) Yet in order for these items to be clearly regarded as such on the record, independent watchdogs like the OCE need to do their job.
Besides, it’s difficult to give Hunter the benefit of the doubt when his record is rife with instances like the $1,302 he spent on video games while knowingly using his campaign’s charge card. That, or the fact that he “reimbursed his campaign about $49,000 last year after an independent review he commissioned found expenses described as inappropriate or made in error.”
Hunter himself admitted the charges related to the rabbit’s airfare were made “because the campaign card looked similar to his personal credit card.” It sounds like a careless mistake, to be sure, but the frequency with which Hunter — an elected official — makes them suggests he and other politicians like him are in need of oversight. And with the coming presidency of a man who frequently steps over his own claims, now is the time when American politics needs all the oversight it can muster.