Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, has been pushing the U.S. Coast Guard to buy or lease a polar ice-breaking ship owned by one of his top campaign contributors, although the Coast Guard has repeatedly said the vessel doesn't meet its needs.
The ship in question, the Aiviq, is a privately-owned, commercial vessel with mid-level ability to break paths through frozen arctic seas. It 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.
The Coast Guard says the Aiviq can't carry out all the missions icebreakers must complete without significant upgrades. Hunter has argued that the ship could support some ice-breaking tasks and is a necessary fleet option as melting polar ice opens the region to commercial traffic, putting more ships at risk.
Contributors connected to the Aiviq's owner, Louisiana-based shipbuilder Edison Chouest Offshore, have given at least $18,000 to Hunter's campaign since January 2015.
That's a fraction of the $911,000 that Hunter raised during that time period. It makes Chouest the second most generous supporter of Hunter, according to review by The San Diego Union-Tribune of campaign finance records.
General Atomics was Hunter's top supporter, with political committees, employees and others giving $28,750.
The Chouest funds were all received May 8, 2015 -- six days before the Coast Guard was to have an acquisitions hearing before a Congressional subcommittee chaired by Hunter.
Hunter's office declined to comment for this story. Edison Chouest and the Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment.
Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, said Hunter's advocacy for the Aiviq may be purely motivated and absolutely warranted, but it looks like he's going out on a limb for a top campaign contributor -- especially given revelations this past spring that Hunter's campaign funds were used for personal purposes.
"Even if he truly believes it's the right thing and in the public's best interests, the fact that he accepted the contributions and then used (campaign money) for personal use all undercuts the integrity of the decision," Noble said. "Even if it's true, even if he knows best and the Coast Guard doesn't know what it's doing, the public is rightfully going to ask, 'What is your motivation?' "
Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at University of California Irvine School of Law, said it would be wrong to jump to conclusions but an official investigation would help sort the issue out.
"It's not a coincidence that people who sit on a defense committee get contributions from defense contractors; that's the way Washington works," Hasen said. "So drawing the line between icky conduct and illegal conduct is important, because many contributions are given in the hopes that the lawmaker will do things that benefit the contributor."
At a subcommittee hearing chaired by Hunter on July 12, the congressman questioned Coast Guard Adm. Charles Michel about the possibility of a lease.
Michel said the Coast Guard's commandant had personally visited the vessel and found it "not suitable for military service without substantial refit." He said the Coast Guard does not operate non-military icebreakers.
Hunter described several ice-breaking scenarios -- such as a resupply of a research mission -- asking Michel whether vessels required military capability to accomplish them.
"One of the Coast Guard's excuses for not using a lease vessel, or a less expensive vessel, is that it's not a military-type vessel," Hunter said. He added, "You're telling me, a Coast Guard (ship) ... to break ice ... needs a more militarized vessel than the Navy does in terms of survivability?"
Michel said, "This is not a pick-up game for the Coast Guard. We have very specific requirements for our vessels, including international law requirements for assertion of things like navigation rights. ... This vessel does not just break ice ..."
At the end of the hearing, Hunter directed Michel to help draft some options the committee could pursue to overcome legal obstacles that block the Coast Guard from short-term lease or charter of private icebreakers, "if we wanted to."
Last month, Hunter asked asked Republican House leadership for money to be included in "any suitable and forthcoming appropriations vehicle" for lease or purchase of a medium icebreaker, according to a Sept. 20 letter Hunter's office released to the Union-Tribune on Thursday.
The letter estimated the costs to charter the Aiviq at $33 million per year to lease, or $150 million to buy.
A week later, Michel sent Hunter's office a letter saying the Coast Guard had conducted market research on the Aiviq and determined that it could, "under certain legal and operational conditions," execute at least some of the Coast Guard's 11 missions.
"However, the vessel's ability to fulfill Coast Guard icebreaker requirements remains unclear because Aiviq has not undergone thorough testing in ice trials, and in its current configuration, lacks the the ability to conduct a full range of Coast Guard missions that our icebreakers carry out," Michel wrote.
The Coast Guard has two operational ice breakers in its aging fleet -- one medium, one heavy. Analysts have determined the nation needs a modern fleet of three heavy and three medium icebreakers to meet the challenges of the Arctic and Antarctic.
Using the Aiviq would be a stopgap measure to address concerns that the two existing ships could fail before replacements are commissioned, leaving the U.S. in the lurch in the event of an emergency.
At the subcommittee hearing July 12, Hunter had an ally in Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who also believes the Coast Guard does not require military-grade vessels for ice breaking. He described Michel's justification for not wanting to lease the Aiviq because it's not a military vessel as "a bulls--- answer."
Since 2015, Edison Chouest Offshore was Young's top campaign contributor, donating at least $28,300, according to Opensecrets.org.
The Hunter contributions on May 8, 2015, came from Gary Chouest and his wife, Carolyn, who contributed the maximum $5,400 each. Dino and Ross Chouest, both the of Edison Chouest affiliated company Galliano Marine Services LLC, gave $1,000 each. Five Bollinger Shipyards executives gave $500 each, and another Bollinger executive gave $2,700.
The money entered Hunter's campaign coffers at the height of a problem he has since acknowledged with thousands of dollars of campaign funds that were spent on personal expenses -- such as $1,137 for oral surgery the following month.
The Hunter campaign -- managed by the Congressman's wife, Margaret -- also spent thousands of dollars of campaign funds on groceries, gasoline and fast food.
Federal law prohibits the expense of campaign funds on personal needs, to avoid undue influence by contributors who stand to gain financial or other advantage.
Hunter's office earlier this year promised an audit of his campaign funds amid inquiries by the Federal Election Commission and The San Diego Union-Tribune. He has so far reimbursed his campaign for $12,000.