San Diego congressman Duncan Hunter, who took sustained political fire earlier this year for personal use of campaign funds and since hired a lawyer to deal with the legal and regulatory fallout, took advantage of the House's August recess to get away from Washington to the embattled Republic of Georgia, congressional disclosure records show.
But Hunter's four-day trip to Tbilisi, from August 26 through August 30, may end up raising some more touchy questions for the Fiftieth district California Republican from Alpine, whose taste for world travel has taken him around the globe, including previous junkets to Italy and Israel.
According to Hunter’s September 7 trip disclosure, required by the House, the summer jaunt, costing a total of $4808 for travel, $612 for lodging, and $200 for meals, was entirely paid for by a nonprofit San Diego charity calling itself the U.S.-Georgia Friendship Association.
The aim of the Georgia jaunt, says the filing, was for Hunter "to meet with ministers and other influential figures of the country to further his political understanding of the country."
In addition to Hunter, the disclosure says, three other House members, Democrat Juan Vargas and Republicans Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania were also invited on the all-expense-paid journey.
"Our organization is dedicated to deepening friendships between the two nations and toward that end, organize people-to-people contacts on all levels," says the group's filing, signed by president Melory Tsipouria, a member of the county Republican central committee and proprietor of Happy San Diego Cleaners.
However, disclosure filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that the nonprofit, first registered with the IRS in May 2012, had zero assets as of December 2015, and had raised no money during the period.
Reached by phone this week, Tsipouria, who records show has personally given to Hunter's campaign committee as well as to other local Republican causes, explained that the cash used to send Hunter on the trip was raised earlier this year. He declined to immediately disclose the donors, identifying them only as “individuals and companies."
An online invitation to a February 6, 2016 fundraiser for the association at 57 Degrees Wine and Craft Beer in San Diego billed Hunter as a headline supporter.
"You are cordially invited to the first annual US-Georgia Friendship Association fundraiser!" said the solicitation.
"Please join us and our friends, Congressman Duncan Hunter and former NFL star Shawne 'Lights Out' Merriman in sponsoring this great organization, and learn more about our activities."
The suggested minimum donation was $100, with other admission levels ranging from bronze ($500) to platinum ($5000).
Tsipouria added that only three others ultimately made the trip with Hunter: House member Sanford; San Diego lawyer Andrew Skale, a member of the association’s board; and Tsipouria himself.
Skale, who this past June placed last for a GOP central committee seat in the 77th Assembly district, is probably most widely known for his work on behalf of football player Merriman in his trademark protection suit against "Lights Out" Pajamas.