Rep. Hunter to plead guilty in corruption case
San Diego County Republican reverses course and admits to using campaign funds on personal expenses.
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.
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-Alpine) says he will plead guilty to one of the 60 criminal charges against him.