WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter for possible campaign finance violations, an allegation the lawmaker dismisses as inadvertent mistakes.
The House Ethics Committee has been investigating allegations that Hunter improperly used campaign funds to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses, such as trips to Hawaii and Italy and tuition for Hunter's school-age children.
The ethics panel said in a statement Thursday that it is delaying the inquiry at the request of the Justice Department.
Hunter, 40, won a fifth term last year representing the San Diego area. A Marine veteran, he chairs the Coast Guard and Maritime subcommittee, and he sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
His lawyers said Hunter and his wife, Margaret, repaid the campaign about $60,000.
"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," lawyers Elliot Berke and Gregory Vega said Thursday in a statement.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics said last year that Hunter's campaign committee reported expenditures that may not be legitimate and verifiable campaign expenditures.
The ethics office, which investigates complaints of wrongdoing by House members, said 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.
Hunter's office said in January that one of the charges he repaid was a $600 fee for flying a pet bunny with his family. There was no intent to stick donors with the cost, said Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper. The congressman used airline miles to pay for his family's travel and there was an assumption that bringing along the rabbit would not incur an extra charge, Kasper told The Associated Press.
When Hunter found out his campaign had paid for the rabbit's transport, he paid back the money as part of more than $60,000 in other questionable charges, Kasper said.
Kasper pointed to the rabbit expense as an example of overreach by the congressional ethics office.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the allegations against Hunter "the most egregious congressional spending scandal since Aaron Schock," an Illinois Republican who resigned in 2015 amid scrutiny over real estate deals, extensive travel and other spending. Questions about Schock's spending were sparked in part by word that he redecorated his congressional office in the lavish style of TV's "Downton Abbey."