Aug. 08–Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, raised $25,000 to cover attorney’s fees in the second quarter of this year, and all five donors are connected to the Louisiana-based shipbuilder Edison Chouest Offshore, according to a new financial report for his legal expense fund.
The money raised by the congressman’s new legal fund comes on top of the $600,000-plus spent by Hunter’s campaign treasury, which previously paid legal expenses as Hunter faces a criminal investigation into his spending of campaign funds for personal benefit.
Hunter filed paperwork in March to establish the special fund for legal expenses. Administered by a trustee, the fund allows donors to give money above the limits imposed on campaign contributions.
The fund’s first quarterly financial report, a copy of which was released by the political money-tracking website Political Moneyline, shows fundraising and spending from April 1 through June 30. Along with at least $25,000 in income, the report shows $27,062 in payments to two law firms.
Hunter’s political campaign has not reported legal expenses since April.
A spokesman for Hunter’s congressional office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The campaign has been under scrutiny since April 2016 for a series of expenses questioned by the Federal Election Commission and then The San Diego Union-Tribune. In response, Hunter has reimbursed the campaign for more than $60,000 in mistaken, personal or undocumented expenditures including video games, oral surgery, private school tuition, a garage door, a family trip to Italy and airfare for a pet rabbit.
Use of campaign funds for personal benefit is illegal, to avoid undue influence by contributors whose bottom line can be affected by decisions in Congress.
As of June 30, Hunter’s legal expense fund had been bankrolled entirely by people and subsidiaries connected to large family-owned shipbuilding company Edison Chouest Offshore, the disclosure shows.
Edison Chouest has been among the top donors to Hunter’s political campaign for years, according to the Union-Tribune’s review of campaign finance records.
Now, with the creation of the legal expense fund, the company has another means of backing Hunter’s legal defense.
For example, Dino Chouest, an executive for at least one of his family’s companies, already gave Hunter’s political campaign $2,700 — the maximum allowed per election — for the primary, and another $1,800 for the general election in November, according to FEC records.
He contributed $5,000 to the legal expense fund — exceeding the $900 he would have been allowed to donate to Hunter’s political campaign and still stay within limits.
Edison Chouest Offshore owns the Aiviq, an ice-breaking ship that Hunter — chairman of the U.S. House subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation — has pushed the Coast Guard to lease or buy, even though officials repeatedly said the ship does not meet their needs.
The Aiviq made national news in 2012 when it suffered mechanical failure and lost control of an oil rig it was towing. The rig ran aground off Kodiak Island in Alaska.
After an unsuccessful attempt in 2016 to get funding to buy or lease the Aiviq outright, Hunter introduced an amendment to a large spending bill in September 2017. The amendment was intended to transfer $5 million from the Coast Guard’s operating budget to pay for sea trials to determine whether a leased vessel can meet the Coast Guard’s needs, according to a transcript of the proceedings on the U.S. House floor.
Rep. Lucille Elsa Roybal-Allard, D-Downey, took the floor after Hunter to speak in opposition to the amendment, saying, “If the owner of the Aiviq or any other private interests want the Coast Guard to seriously consider the use of their vessels for icebreaking, they should be the ones paying for any ice trials.
“We should not be making the Coast Guard pay for it, and we should not be pushing the Coast Guard to enter into a lease arrangement that it does not want and that is not a good investment in helping the Coast Guard carry out its critical missions.”
Hunter responded that the sea trials would help keep efforts to acquire icebreakers from stalling when the country is vulnerable and there is no time to waste.
“This is a step in the right direction,” he said, according to House records. “Otherwise, we are never going to have an icebreaker. We are not going to be able to compete in the Arctic. It will be energy exploration for Russia and China, and not us because we are not going to be there unless we start right now in this appropriations bill.”
The amendment passed with a 245-168 vote, according to Congress.gov.
Hunter has long emphasized the importance of building up the country’s sparse and aging fleet of ice-breaking ships capable of protecting national security in the Arctic.
The U.S. has only one heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy, while other countries, including Russia, have robust fleets. Both Polar Star and Healy have spent time out of service for repairs.
“Right now, we can’t really do anything substantial in the Arctic,” Hunter told the Navy Times last week. “Our icebreaker is in dry dock for months out of the year. If it breaks down and gets stuck up there, we’ll have to ask the Russians for help.”
In February 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, Louisiana was one of five companies awarded about $20 million in fixed-price contracts for design studies for faster, less-expensive production of new ice-breaking ships.
Edison Chouest and the CEO for Bollinger Shipyards, Ben Bordelon, acquired Bollinger in 2014, according to industry publications.
Construction of the first new icebreaker was planned to start as soon as next year, with $750 million tentatively set aside for the project, but recent budget negotiations on Capitol Hill have created uncertainty, according to news reports last week.
A draft budget proposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland security re-allocates the money help to pay for a multi-billion-dollar wall along the Mexican border, the news reports said. Hunter has been publicly advocating for lawmakers to find a way to keep the funding for the ships.
Bollinger Shipyards contributed $5,000 to Hunter’s legal expense fund on May 18, according to the disclosure released this month. Chand LLC, the technical and logistic support division for Bollinger, also gave $5,000. Gary Chouest, his wife, Carolyn, and Dino Chouest, each contributed $5,000.
The fund reported paying $22,500 to the San Diego-based law firm Seltzer, Caplan, McMahon, Vitek on June 26, according to the report. Another $4,562 went to pay the Washington, D.C.,-based law firm Holtzman, Vogel, Josefiak, Torchinsky.
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