SAN DIEGO — Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty before a federal judge in San Diego Tuesday to misusing $150,000 in campaign funds for his own personal expenses. Hunter faces a possible five-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced March 17.
As Hunter walked out of the San Diego federal court following his short change-of-plea hearing Tuesday morning with his attorney, he made a brief statement to reporters, saying, “I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about. That being said, I’ll have more statements in the future about the future.”
In his plea deal, Hunter said he and his wife dipped into the election funds between 2010 and 2016 more than 30 times and tried to hide it by falsely reporting the expenses — from their daughter’s birthday party at the famed Hotel Del Coronado to an outing with friends in Washington at a French bistro — were campaign related.
Prosecutor Phil Halpern had a sharp rebuke for the congressman’s claim that the investigation was a politically motivated "witch-hunt."
“No figure, regardless of what office they occupy, should be allowed in this country to cry 'witch-hunt' or 'fake news' and attempt to deflect their criminal wrongdoings," Halpern said.
Halpern vowed to seek a prison term for Hunter and said the minimum amount would be one year, but he could ask for a longer sentence. The plea agreement calls for the congressman to serve a maximum of five years. A judge will determine his ultimate sentence.
Rather than re-election, Halpern said, “Mr. Hunter now faces resignation, disgrace and imprisonment.”
Hunter left the courthouse to jeers of “Lock him up.”
Below is the plea agreement from the United States District Court of the Southern District of California.
For more than a year, California Rep. Duncan Hunter insisted that criminal charges against him and his wife were the result of a conspiracy of the “deep state” meant to drive the six-term Republican from office in the Democrat-dominated state.
Hunter, an early supporter of President Donald Trump, said in a TV interview that aired Monday that he is prepared to go to jail. He has not said exactly when he will resign.
Hunter, 42, said his motivation is to protect his three children from going through a trial, which was set to begin Jan. 22.
The change in plea marks the second time this year a Republican congressman who was re-elected while indicted has later pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Hunter's wife, Margaret Hunter, 44, was also charged in the case and in June accepted a plea deal that called for her to testify against her husband. The couple could have faced decades in prison before the plea deals. His wife faces up to five years in prison.
Federal prosecutors said the couple spent more than $250,000 in campaign money for golf outings, family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, tequila shots and airline tickets for their pet rabbit.
Prosecutors also alleged that Hunter used campaign funds to pursue extramarital affairs and repeatedly used campaign credit cards or sought reimbursement for expenses that included resort hotel rooms, airfare, a skiing trip and Uber rides to and from the homes of five women with whom he had "intimate relationships."
Hunter had repeatedly maintained his innocence and accused the U.S. Attorney's Office of a politically motivated prosecution. He maintained that two prosecutors on the case attended a La Jolla campaign event for then-Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in 2015, then indicted him two months before the 2018 election due to his public endorsement of Donald Trump.
After his wife agreed to a plea deal, Hunter said “it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”
Hunter represents the 50th Congressional District, which covers East County San Diego and a small part of southern Riverside County. It is the most Republican district in Southern California, an area now nearly devoid of GOP representation in Congress.
Hunter narrowly survived a challenge in 2018 from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a political newcomer. The 30-year-old Campa-Najjar is running again and Republican contenders include former Rep. Darrell Issa and radio personality Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Councilman.
Campa-Najjar spoke with 760 radio personality, Mark Larson, about Hunter's guilty plea and race to fill his seat. Campa-Najjar said that although you can't take away Hunter Jr.'s service to this country, it is time for us to move on and fill his seat with someone who has the district's best interests at heart.
Hunter was re-elected last November with 51.7% of the vote in the 50th Congressional District, despite being indicted three months prior. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father, who held the congressional seat for 28 years.
The Hunters case is not the first political scandal to roil San Diego.
Other scandals include former Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation amid sexual harassment allegations, former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham’s prison time for accepting millions in bribes, and former Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s conviction on campaign fraud, later dismissed in court.
Prosecutors said Hunter’s resignation from Congress was not part of the plea deal but was understood to be forthcoming by his defense team. Exactly when that may happen is not clear.