Rep. Duncan Hunter leaves a federal court hearing. / Image via KPBS

Rep. Duncan Hunter is in a lot of trouble.

But the reason he’s in trouble is not that he bought stupid things or drank a lot or flew a bunny in an airplane. (Do you think the bunny had any concept of the remarkable engineering feat he was experiencing?)

The problem he faces is that he crossed the line that guides our country away from corruption.

Behind all the complexity of modern American campaign finance is one concept: to make sure money going into a politician’s pocket is only from his public salary, or legitimate personal income, and to prevent elected officials from partaking in bribery, the most basic form of corruption. The increasingly complex laws built around this concept are meant to both prevent corruption and build trust by preventing even the perception of corruption.

We have decided that we don’t want people to be able to easily give politicians money or gifts to enrich them. We especially don’t want them to do it in exchange for a contract, a law, a permit, or outsize influence in decisions that affect the public. This would keep Americans from receiving honest services. More broadly, if politicians are more concerned with their personal finances or relationships than finding the best solutions to our collective problems, the government, and the services and infrastructure it provides, just don’t work as well.

In some other countries, residents can only enjoy police protection, trash services, honest permitting, access to public records – just about anything – if they participate in systemic culture of bribery and corrupt networking.

We are far – far – from perfect. But we must vigilantly protect what we have, which we call the rule of law. Thus, we draw the line as precisely as we can.

One challenge with that, though, is that we also have a campaign culture and system that operates with money – lots of it. You can’t win an office without building up a pile of money from people willing to support you. Many of those people want things: changes to the law, permits or contracts. What you can do for those donors, once you win office, falls on the spectrum from politics as usual to criminal activity.

Take one end of the spectrum, with which San Diego got very familiar 15 years ago.

Prosecutors ruined former City Councilman Michael Zucchet’s political career after accusing him not of taking a personal bribe but of being too willing to carry out a campaign donor’s wishes. He never did – he actually proposed a law hostile to the donor’s interest – but it was an awkward enough circumstance that prosecutors won a conviction. A judge later threw out most of the charges and prosecutors dropped the rest.

His former colleague, Ralph Inzunza, wasn’t so fortunate. In his case, judges decided that his quid pro quo with donors was more obvious. In part, because those donors – a network serving a strip-club operator – were caught saying explicitly that he was going to carry out their wishes. He served more than a year in prison.

Neither Inzunza nor Zucchet took bribes. They did not personally benefit from the donations they got. Yet federal prosecutors brought the entire weight of the Department of Justice down on them. Inzunza, like Hunter, was accused of conspiracy.

On the other end of the spectrum, we watched former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham fall in a corruption scandal. He didn’t bother with the campaign donations and just took bribes straight up. It is rarely so black and white as it was with him.

After Watergate, the United States at all levels came up with the rules for how to balance the way our campaigns work with that fear of bribery and corruption. We said: You can raise money, up to certain limits, but those donations go to a special account, a separate corporation, that you do not own. Those are not your assets.

You can run ads, pay people and even buy pizza for your team. But you can’t buy new shorts because they make your butt look good, or go to Vegas with your wife, or buy a steak with a side of 30 tequila shots or a ton of groceries at Costco for your family.

Thus, we arrived at the rules that we have heard so much about this week. One is that you must disclose the money and support you get for your campaign. If someone buys your campaign team pizza and T-shirts to hand out, that’s a contribution. You have to disclose it. (That’s the law, at least in part, that got the president’s longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, in trouble this week. If his payment to a porn star was explicitly to support the president’s campaign, as Cohen now says it was, then it was a campaign expenditure, just as if it were, say, 130,000 yard signs with her picture endorsing him.)

The other is that you can only use that money for campaign purposes. People can’t just give you money to put in your pocket. You can’t depend on campaign donors to buoy your lifestyle.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city of San Diego’s Ethics Commission, didn’t want to talk about Hunter’s case but offered two scenarios to illustrate where campaign spending becomes a problem.

In one, a contributor donates $1,000 to help a candidate buy TV ads for his campaign.

In another scenario, though, imagine a candidate is heavily in debt (Me: overdrawing his personal bank account 1,100 times in seven years!) and drawing from the campaign to cover expenses. The candidate needs money (Me: desperately!) to pay personal bills, and a contributor donates $1,000. That donation means something different.

“You can see in that scenario why it creates more of an appearance of corruption,” Fulhorst said.

We have decided, except for some narrow circumstances, that you can’t give politicians money that they can put directly in their pockets. We don’t want politicians to feel personally indebted to people who want things from the government.

That’s the law that ensnared Hunter. Federal prosecutors say Hunter and his wife were so far in debt and had such high expectations for their lifestyle that they dipped into campaign funds: more than $250,000 in all. He’s spoken a bit in the press, and it’s hard to see what he disputes exactly about the facts and law. As for the facts, he clearly used a lot of money for personal expenditures, sometimes in shocking circumstances.

And the law about it is clear.

If what federal officials say about his expenditures is true – and he has had two years to debunk much of it without success – then Hunter and his wife treated the campaign fund as their own personal bank account. And that meant that donors to his campaign were directly saving them from bankruptcy and financial ruin.

That means Hunter became personally dependent on donors. That’s precisely what we want to avoid. And that’s why he’s in so much trouble now.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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