Rep. Hunter to plead guilty in cor­rup­tion case

San Diego County Repub­li­can re­verses course and ad­mits to us­ing cam­paign funds on per­sonal ex­penses.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Mor­gan Cook and Jeff McDonald

Af­ter years of de­nials and claims that he was the tar­get of a po­lit­i­cal witch hunt, Rep. Dun­can Hunter (Ralpine) is sched­uled to ap­pear in fed­eral court Tues­day morn­ing to plead guilty in a sweep­ing cam­paign fi­nance in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The an­nounce­ment was posted on the U.S. District Court docket Mon­day morn­ing, then KUSI-TV (Chan­nel 51) aired an in­ter­view with Hunter in which he said he would plead guilty to one of the 60 crim­i­nal charges against him. He sug­gested that he is likely to spend time in cus­tody.

“The plea I ac­cepted is mis­use of my own cam­paign funds, of which I pled guilty to only one count,” Hunter told the station. “I think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple know that I did make mis­takes. I did not prop­erly mon­i­tor or ac­count for my cam­paign money.”

The re­ver­sal comes nearly six months af­ter Hunter’s wife and for­mer cam­paign man­ager, Mar­garet Hunter, ad­mit­ted to her role in a scheme that, in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­leged, in­volved the cou­ple spend­ing more than $200,000 in cam­paign do­na­tions on fam­ily ex­penses such as va­ca­tions, gas, gro­ceries, school lunches and oral surgery. Such spend­ing is pro­hib­ited to pre­vent un­due in­flu­ence by con­trib­u­tors.

The con­gress­man did not ex­plic­itly say he would step down — of­ten an out­come in any such plea agree­ment — but he an­swered a ques­tion about what would hap­pen to his seat in Congress.

“I’m con­fi­dent that the

tran­si­tion will be a good one,” he told KUSI. “My of­fice is go­ing to re­main open. We’re go­ing to pass it off to who­ever takes this seat next.”

The trial, which al­ready was pushed back twice as de­fense at­tor­neys chal­lenged var­i­ous claims in the fed­eral in­dict­ment, was sched­uled to be­gin Jan. 22.

“Con­gress­man Hunter has shown a bla­tant dis­re­gard for the law and en­gaged in one of the most egre­gious con­gres­sional spend­ing scan­dals we have ever seen,” said Jor­dan Li­bowitz, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the left-lean­ing ad­vo­cacy group Ci­ti­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton. “We are glad to see Con­gress­man Hunter will fi­nally face the con­se­quences of his ac­tions. Given that he will now be a con­victed crim­i­nal for abus­ing his of­fice, Con­gress­man Hunter must re­sign im­me­di­ately.”

Pros­e­cu­tors, along with the con­gress­man, were due in court Tues­day morn­ing to de­bate Dun­can Hunter’s lat­est mo­tions over whether at­tor­ney Paul Pf­in­gst has a con­flict of in­ter­est de­fend­ing his client be­cause his law firm rep­re­sented wit­nesses in the case. The change of plea hear­ing will ap­par­ently take place in­stead.

The change of plea, if en­tered and ac­cepted by the judge, also would close the com­pli­cated ap­peal that Hunter filed ear­lier this year. In an un­usual move, the east San Diego County con­gress­man ap­pealed his pros­e­cu­tion in July to the 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peal even be­fore his trial opened. He was ar­gu­ing that his cam­paign spend­ing was pro­tected as leg­isla­tive ac­tiv­ity not sub­ject to pros­e­cu­tion by the ex­ec­u­tive branch.

A spokes­woman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice said pros­e­cu­tors would have no com­ment be­fore Tues­day’s hear­ing.

Hunter, who will turn 43 on Satur­day, and his wife were charged in Au­gust 2018 with 60 crim­i­nal counts re­lated to their use of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. They faced decades in prison if con­victed of all charges.

Both pleaded not guilty to the charges when they were ar­raigned.

Mar­garet Hunter, 44, changed her plea in June to guilty to a count of con­spir­acy and agreed to tes­tify against her hus­band. She faces up to five years in prison when she is sen­tenced in April but is likely to serve sub­stan­tially less time.

Dun­can Hunter told KUSI: “What­ever my time in cus­tody will be, I will take that hit.”

Ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment, the Hunters re­lied for years on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions for ex­penses such as den­tal bills, home re­pairs and fast-food meals.

They also used do­na­tions to pay for va­ca­tions abroad, pri­vate-school tuition, video games and plane tick­ets for Mar­garet Hunter’s mother to travel to and from Poland.

The Hunters used more than $500 in cam­paign funds to fly the fam­ily’s pet rab­bit, Eg­g­burt, across the coun­try with them, Mar­garet Hunter ad­mit­ted in her plea agree­ment.

The ini­tial in­dict­ment also al­luded to sev­eral un­named “in­di­vid­u­als” who ap­peared to have re­la­tion­ships with Dun­can Hunter.

Ear­lier this year, as pros­e­cu­tors dis­closed more of their ev­i­dence in public court fil­ings, it be­came clear that the con­gress­man had af­fairs with at least five women over many years and paid for them with cam­paign funds.

Though never iden­ti­fied pub­licly, three were noted to be lob­by­ists and two were re­ported to be con­gres­sional staffers.

Ac­cord­ing to the July court fil­ings, Dun­can Hunter used cam­paign funds to pay for a three-day week­end at Lake Ta­hoe with one woman who was not his wife. On an­other oc­ca­sion, he used po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions to pay for a stay at the Li­ai­son Capi­tol Hill ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton, records show.

The in­dict­ment also said that the con­gress­man and his wife were well aware that their use of the cam­paign do­na­tions was ques­tion­able. Pros­e­cu­tors re­cently said in a court fil­ing that Rep. Hunter was warned about the spend­ing as early as 2010.

The cou­ple’s joint bank ac­count was over­drawn more than 1,100 times over the six-plus years of records ex­am­ined by pros­e­cu­tors and the cou­ple racked up some $36,000 in over­draft penal­ties — fees they paid us­ing cam­paign funds, the in­dict­ment stated.

Text mes­sages in­cluded in court files show that at one point Mar­garet Hunter ad­vised her hus­band to use the cam­paign credit card to buy a pair of Hawai­ian shorts he wanted but could not af­ford — and to tell his then-trea­surer that the pur­chase was to as­sist “wounded war­riors.”

Since in­ves­ti­ga­tions into his spend­ing started in mid-2016, Dun­can Hunter has spent more than $800,000 on at­tor­neys, in­clud­ing sev­eral for his crim­i­nal de­fense, ac­cord­ing to his cam­paign fil­ings.

The crim­i­nal charges from Au­gust 2018 came more than two years af­ter the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion and the San Diego Union Tri­bune first ques­tioned cam­paign ex­pen­di­tures Dun­can Hunter re­ported in April 2016 — a se­ries of videogame pur­chases and a pay­ment to his chil­dren’s pri­vate school.

The con­gress­man ini­tially blamed his son for grab­bing the wrong credit card to pay the video-game charges. Later, he ap­peared to blame his wife for im­proper charges, say­ing she was in charge of fam­ily fi­nances and was re­ceiv­ing $3,000 a month to serve as his cam­paign trea­surer.

The Union-Tri­bune con­tin­ued to raise ques­tions about Dun­can Hunter’s spend­ing over the months that fol­lowed. By the 2016 gen­eral elec­tion, he had re­paid about $60,000 to his cam­paign for ex­pen­di­tures he said were mis­taken or in­suf­fi­ciently doc­u­mented.

Nei­ther the de­nials nor the re­pay­ment quelled the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The law­maker dis­missed fol­low-up sto­ries by the Union-Tri­bune as “fake news.”

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors opened their crim­i­nal case in mid-2016, a move that he dis­missed as be­ing con­ducted by “deep state” par­ti­sans within the FBI and oth­ers in the U.S. govern­ment.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and the cost of his le­gal de­fense, took its toll on the fam­ily. The con­gress­man and his wife sold their Alpine home in 2017 to pay off debts and moved into the nearby home of Dun­can Hunter’s fa­ther.

His lawyers ar­gued in court as re­cently as this sum­mer that the cam­paign spend­ing, in­clud­ing re­sort stays and meals with girl­friends, legally con­sti­tuted leg­isla­tive acts — mean­ing they could not be pros­e­cuted as crimes un­der the speech or de­bate clause of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

The ques­tions sur­round­ing the con­gress­man’s spend­ing were slow to erode his sup­port among vot­ers in the 50th District, a re­gion his fa­ther — who is also named Dun­can Hunter — held for 14 terms. The younger Dun­can Hunter won re­elec­tion to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2016 and again last year, even as the scan­dal swirled around him.

But he was stripped of his com­mit­tee as­sign­ments af­ter his in­dict­ment last year and de­nied new as­sign­ments un­der Repub­li­can Party rules adopted for the 116th Congress.

With no com­mit­tee as­sign­ments and a loom­ing in­dict­ment, he has drawn for­mi­da­ble chal­lengers hop­ing to win his seat in the March 3 pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tion in Novem­ber 2020.

Repub­li­can chal­lengers in­clude for­mer San Diego Coun­cil­man Carl De­Maio, for­mer Rep. Dar­rell Issa and state Sen. Brian Jones. Hunter also faces a chal­lenge by Demo­crat Ammar Campa-Na­j­jar, who nar­rowly lost the race in 2018.

In Oc­to­ber, Hunter failed for the first time to get the en­dorse­ment of the Repub­li­can Party of San Diego County, which de­clined to en­dorse a can­di­date.

Devin Burstein, Hunter’s ap­pel­late lawyer, de­clined to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about his client’s plea deal.

Nelvin C. Cepeda San Diego Union-Tri­bune

REP. DUN­CAN HUNTER (R-Alpine) says he will plead guilty to one of the 60 crim­i­nal charges against him.

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