Amid countless stories of broken campaign finance laws, shady backroom deals and politicians hit with colossal fines or even jail time, it's good to be reminded that some financial disclosure mistakes can result in little more than public embarrassment and that may well be where it ends.
It depends entirely on how far the Federal Elections Commission wants to pursue its line of questioning with regard to Rep. Duncan Hunter's use of campaign funds to purchase video games. On 68 separate occasions, officials say that Hunter, a California congressman, bought video games for his teenage son. The FEC is looking for answers.
A surprisingly common mistake
At first glance, Hunter's conundrum might appear a minor and even amusing episode. But it's more than that. Candidates and political action committees regularly run afoul of election law compliance standards by misusing campaign funds. Sometimes it's deliberate fraud. Most times, however, it's an honest mistake that can end in serious legal or financial trouble.
That could be the case with Hunter. Rising to minor fame in February for his opposition to a ban on using e-cigarettes in airplanes (a position he defended with obstinate puffs on his personal vaporizer), the so-called "Vaping Congressman" listed $1,302 in expenses to Steam Games, a PC gaming platform, on his 2015 year-end FEC reports, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
No payback is reported on the expenses, whose duration stretches from Oct. 13 to Dec. 16. Each transaction fell between about $5 and $96, the New York Daily News reported.
Joe Kasper, the congressman's spokesman, put some distance between Hunter and the charges. He told the Union-Tribune that Hunter's teenage son bought one video game with his father's campaign credit card. At some point the congressman apparently tried to close out his account with Steam, but a number of unauthorized charges followed his attempts.
The reason Hunter has yet to repay his campaign account, Kasper said, was that he was working with Steam to have the charges reversed. Anyone who has ever been in that situation with Steam before would wish him good luck. Waiting for the funds to be restored seems reason enough for the delay, at least in Kasper's estimation.
"There won't be any paying anything back there, pending the outcome of the fraud investigation, depending on how long that takes," said Kasper. He told the Daily News that "now it's between the credit card company and gaming platform."
Others aren't so sure, however. What started as a cursory look into money spent illicitly on video games may be becoming something more.
FEC expands the scope of questioning
"In its letter, the FEC demanded an explanation and that the funds be repaid."
In early April, the FEC submitted a letter to Hunter's campaign treasurer asking for a further explanation of the expenses. There were also requests to properly amend the filings and pursue reimbursement for any and all personal expenditures. The Congressman was given a little more than a month to comply.
But it didn't end there. The FEC was also curious about a Sept. 21 payment totaling $1,650 to Christian Unified Schools of El Cajon, the Union-Tribune reported. Hunter cited the payment as a personal expense to be paid back. Kasper, addressing the new line of questioning, said that it was a lawful personal donation mistakenly identified as a personal expense.
Mistakes continue to add up. The more of them a PAC or candidate makes, the less likely the FEC or a state election law compliance commission is to be lenient. It's easy to forgive one offense, but when there are several, hefty fines are often the result. PACs and campaign committees need to apply diligent oversight to managing their funds.