It all started with a 2017 article by Morgan Cook of the San Diego Union-Tribune looking into some questionable campaign expenses charged at Disneyland by Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr. (R-CA). This snowballed into a series of investigations into potential misuse of $250,000 of campaign funds. Hunter was officially indicted in August 2018 on 60 charges including wire fraud, falsifying records, conspiracy, and campaign finance violation. He eventually pled guilty to a single count of Conspiracy to Steal Campaign Funds last December. This week he finally announced that he will resign from the House of Representatives on January 13.
With the guilty plea, Hunter could end up in jail for a maximum of five years, but prosecutors have recommended up to 14 months. Sentencing is scheduled for March 17.
However, it remains to be seen whether Hunter will lose his congressional pension. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA) and the Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act of 2012 listed several crimes that would result in forfeiture of a congressional pension upon final conviction. The Office of Personnel Management, in consultation with the Department of Justice, normally does not make a determination of pension eligibility until the year that the payments will start. Hunter turned 43 last December and won’t be eligible for early retirement payments until he reaches the age of 55 in 2032.
There is some doubt that Hunter will have to forgo his pension. Beth Rotman, Director of Money in Politics & Ethics of Common Cause, notes that the conspiracy count for which he plead guilty is not specifically included in HLOGA (or the STOCK Act).
We can’t know for sure, but Hunter may have plead to that specific count in order to protect his taxpayer-funded pension. Based on the Social Security Administration’s Life Expectancy Calculator, a 43-year-old male can expect to live an additional 39.7 years, on average. Factoring in his length of service in office and the projected annual cost-of-living-adjustments under the Federal Employees Retirement System, NTUF calculates that Rep. Duncan Hunter stands to collect a lifetime total pension of over $1.24 million.
Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, reports that no convicted member has yet been stripped of a pension. Congress should look into the issue to determine whether or not Hunter’s guilty plea will leave his pension intact. This should be conducted in concert with the Office of Personnel Management as part of an evaluation analyzing how the pension deprivation provisions of HLOGA and the STOCK Act have worked in practice. Upon these findings, it may be necessary to add additional crimes to HLOGA and the STOCK Act to make sure that public officials who use campaign money as a personal slush fund and end up in jail are not collecting taxpayer-funded pensions.
Congress also needs to address a unfortunate loophole NTUF has previously identified that has allowed previous Congressional convicts, like former Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) and former Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-NY), to continue receiving their pensions throughout lengthy appeal processes despite having been adjudicated guilty and sentenced to prison. Former Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) introduced legislation in 2017 to cut off pensions for any Member convicted of a felony. The bill has not yet been reintroduced in the current Congress.