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Rep. Duncan Hunter’s team responds to uproar over rabbit expenses

A California congressman’s use of campaign funds to transport a pet rabbit aboard a commercial flight is one of the more eye-catching expenses that, for many, underscore the need for strong congressional oversight.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wound up reimbursing his campaign for $62,000 in personal or incorrectly documented expenses — including $600 for “cabin rabbit transport fees” — after the House Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) investigated his spending habits last year, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The story led to widespread mockery. But Hunter’s office argues that the expense’s context shows the Southern California lawmaker’s behavior was ethical.

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper told Yahoo News that it was irritating to see media reports suggesting that Hunter was “caught” doing something wrong because he self-reported a list of questionable expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, which regulates campaign finance, in February 2016.

According to Kasper, there was “no intent” by Hunter to misuse campaign funds on personal matters. Hunter’s team intentionally floated the rabbit story in conversation with the Press-Enterprise to demonstrate how — from its perspective — the OCE has misconstrued simple mistakes as unethical conduct.

“All of this stuff had been self-identified and self-reported by Hunter,” Kasper said. “He decided that the number to reimburse was $60,000 to make sure that he was incorporating every campaign expense which might have been questionable as well as every other expense that lacked the proper documentation or supporting information, even though — safe to say — the vast majority of it was bona fide.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference with the Republican members of the California congressional delegation in December. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

According to Kasper, Hunter had accrued many frequent-flier miles because his job entails regular travel, and the credit card on file for the account was mistakenly charged when the former chief of staff’s rabbit was aboard.

The Ethics Reform Act of 1989, which was signed by then-President George H.W. Bush, prohibits campaign funds for personal use.

Moreover, the House Ethics Manual states that campaign funds cannot be used to “enhance a Member‘s lifestyle” or pay for “a Member‘s personal obligations.”

“Members have wide discretion in determining what constitutes a bona fide campaign or political purpose to which campaign funds and resources may be devoted,” it reads, “but Members have no discretion whatsoever to convert campaign funds to personal use. Furthermore, House rules require that Members be able to verify that campaign funds have not been used for personal purposes.”

Other questionable expenses included charges related to groceries, video games, an Italy trip and a surf shop. Though Kasper offered explanations for several of those, the sheer number of mistakes led critics to argue that the congressman’s situation showed why the OCE should exist.

Earlier this week, House Republicans ignited a firestorm by moving to substantially defang the independent ethics watchdog. After widespread bipartisan criticism, they backed off the proposal.

Rep. Duncan Hunter is interviewed by a television crew in the Cannon rotunda at the Capitol in 2015. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Even President-elect Donald Trump took a swipe at the Republican move to weaken OCE, which was established by Democrats in 2008. He argued that Congress should prioritize other issues like tax reform and health care.

“These stories get legs of their own. They tend to go on, on and on,” Kasper said. “We used the issue of the rabbit, for instance, to underscore, how in cases there can be overreach on the part of the OCE that doesn’t account for poor oversight, simple mistakes or mistakes that can occur on the part of the airline or any other entity.”

The OCE report has not yet been released.