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Even Duncan Hunter’s Special Interest Donors Couldn’t Save Him

When Rep. Duncan Hunter departs Congress under the cloud of a federal criminal conviction, it’s likely that few will be as disappointed as the special interests that funded not just his political campaigns but also his six-figure legal bills.

Hunter (R-CA) is expected to plead guilty to one count of misuse of campaign funds and resign from his House seat. But that acquiescence only comes after he racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

To help cover those bills, Hunter established a legal defense fund in early 2018, and it received tens of thousands of dollars from companies, and executives of companies, that over the course of Hunter’s decade in Congress, secured large federal contracts with his assistance. 

Hunter is now expected to plead guilty to charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws by using campaign funds for extensive personal expenses. But even as he stared down the barrel of a federal criminal indictment, donations flowed to finance his legal defense, often from the same donors who provided the campaign funds that Hunter illicitly misused.

The legal defense fund had received $65,800 as of its last quarterly report in October. Those donations defrayed the immense legal bills that he’s racked up since March 2018, about a year after it was revealed that he was under criminal investigation. Since 2017, Hunter’s campaign has reported spending more than $800,000 on legal services.

The first major cash infusion for Hunter’s legal defense came from the Chouest family of southern Louisiana. Three members of that family and two subsidiaries of their company, Edison Chouest Offshore, donated a combined $25,000 to fund Hunter’s legal defense in May 2018.

The Chouests were also heavy Hunter campaign donors, and Hunter was an outspoken supporter of federal policies that redounded to their benefit. Before he was indicted and stripped of his committee assignments, he chaired the Armed Services Committee panel overseeing the Coast Guard, which has awarded Chouest companies contracts to supply ships to the service.

Hunter was an outspoken supporter of greater Coast Guard ship procurement money, and he even went to bat for Edison Chouest specifically, successfully pushing the Coast Guard to buy a ship owned by the company.

He went to bat for another campaign donor in 2015 when Hunter repeatedly urged the Obama administration to allow the sale of unmanned military drones to the Jordanian government. The specific types of drones at issue were manufactured by the company General Atomics, which is based in his district.

General Atomics was also a huge source of campaign cash for Hunter. Its employees donated tens of thousands of dollars to keep him in Washington. And in October 2018, Linden Blue, the company’s co-owner and vice chairman, chipped in $5,000 to Hunter’s legal defense fund.

Other legal defense fund donors appear to have benefitted less materially from Hunter’s backing. The most recent contribution came in September from Melory Tsipouria, a San Diego businessman active in Republican circles in Southern California. Tsipouria also runs a nonprofit called the U.S.-Georgia Friendship Association, which promotes greater ties to the Eastern European nation.

In 2016, Tsipouria’s group funded a junket to Tblisi, where Hunter and a few other Republican members of Congress met with high ranking Georgian government officials, including the country’s president.

Tsipouria told The Daily Beast last week that he supported Duncan’s reelection bid despite a crowded Republican primary field. He did not respond to inquiries about Hunter’s guilty plea on Monday.

That primary contest would have pitted Hunter against formidable challengers including former Rep. Darrell Issa, who currently leads in the polls. And while Republicans in the district will likely be similarly friendly to its significant defense industry presence, the winner of that primary will face off against a Democrat, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who narrowly lost to Hunter last year.

It’s not clear that Campa-Najjar will be as competitive against a Republican candidate who is not under criminal indictment. But elements of the defense industry appear to consider him less of an ally than Hunter has been. That was evident when the Hunter campaign blasted out an outrageous direct mail piece last year accusing Campa-Najjar of being a terrorist sympathizer. 

The mail piece was actually a letter signed by three former Marine Corps generals. The Hunter campaign neglected to mention that all three were also defense industry lobbyists with business before the committee Hunter once chaired.

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