Like a Lady Macbeth with an AmEx debit card, Margaret Hunter appeared to be the brains behind the alleged operation to plunder her husband’s campaign finances. The California congressman needed to buy shorts? Shop at a golf pro shop, she allegedly encouraged him in so many words, according to a Tuesday indictment. That way you can claim the shorts were golf balls, purchased for the Wounded Warriors charity.
Duncan D. Hunter’s family needed “groceries, household items, toiletries, cosmetics and vitamins”? They’re all gift basket items, she allegedly told the campaign’s treasurer. Nobody, of course, questions a society woman and her charity gift baskets.
The congressman himself was a prolific filcher. In the indictment, which alleges $250,000 in misused money over nearly a decade, he was forever going to Best Buy and a place called Sally’s Fish House Bar, using his campaign funding to buy iPods and beers, along with splurging on golf outings and airline tickets.
But most of the time, his purchases were accompanied with no explanations at all. And when explanations were demanded, Hunter’s attempts to cover up lacked both skill and creative flair: “LOL,” he responded when the treasurer asked why a campaign credit card had been used to purchase $142 in pants at Men’s Wearhouse. “I used the wrong card.”
Meanwhile, his wife, who had been hired by the campaign and had access to its money, allegedly schemed with the casual confidence of any woman who has ever appeared in a new dress and claimed, “No, I’ve had this forever/ It’s a hand-me-down from my sister/ I was waiting to wear it until I lost eight pounds, what do you mean you didn’t notice that I lost eight pounds, no I think we ARE going to have this argument now.”
In short: Women are used to their purchasing habits being questioned or second-guessed, so they have an arsenal of excuses, explanations and distractions at the ready. Which, in the case of the Hunters, appeared to allow the alleged grifting to go on for a very long time.
“Applebee’s Restaurant — Republican women” is how Margaret Hunter explained $25 that was allegedly used for a personal medical prescription. She must have realized that an Applebee’s was exactly the kind of accessible, family-friendly venue likely to be chosen for such a meet-n-greet.
“Children’s hospital book drive,” is how she coded a Barnes & Noble shopping spree.
“One-time set-up fee” for “internet printer and fax line” was the description for paying off the family’s cable bill.
“Flight to Baltimore for NRCC winter meeting.”
“Campaign meal on the go.”
“The hotel had issues with one room, so we ended up switching.”
The public never gets tired of gawking over how grifters spend money unlawfully. A decade ago, the most pressing question in the trial of Harriette Walters — a D.C. government employee convicted of embezzling — was how, precisely, she’d racked up $1.4 million at Neiman Marcus. The star of Paul Manafort’s recent trial was a bazillion dollar ostrich jacket.
But Manafort never pretended that the ostrich jacket was a “gift bundle basket for foothills Republican women spring fashion show,” and Margaret Hunter did.
Walters never pretended that her Neiman Marcus handbags were “gift [tickets] to a local league football fundraiser,” and Margaret Hunter did.
Every explanation was allegedly a careful coverup. And so every illicit purchase represented two kinds of aspirations: what she wanted to own, and how she wanted society to view her.
What purchases would permit her to maintain an enviable lifestyle, and what fake stories would allow her to maintain a virtuous facade?
In the indictment, Margaret Hunter repeatedly buys clothing and toys for her kids and codes them as donations. Hosts parties and codes them as fundraisers. Takes her family to water parks and codes them as educational tours.
Buried deep in Margaret Hunter’s alleged unlawful spending, we can read the state of the aspirational modern American mother: wholesome, worldly, harried, benevolent.
And apparently cash-strapped, too. This alleged misuse happened only because the Hunters — even with Duncan’s $174,000 annual House salary — were apparently dead broke. “Take out the $20,” Margaret allegedly cautioned her husband one day. The balance in their personal account at that time was $28.16.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.