Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds on Tuesday and is expected to resign from Congress before facing a prison sentence.
Hunter will be sentenced on March 17. A federal prosecutor said he planned to seek a sentence of at least one year in prison, according to the Associated Press.
“I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about,” Hunter told reporters after the hearing.
Hunter’s guilty plea, entered in federal court in San Diego, marked the culmination of a three-year investigation that included tawdry details about the Republican using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for hotel rooms to entertain his mistresses, his children’s private school tuition, transportation for a pet rabbit and other expenses. He and his wife, Margaret, who handled his campaign finances, were each initially indicted on 60 federal counts in August 2018.
Margaret Hunter, 44, pleaded guilty in June to conspiring with her husband to violate campaign finance laws and agreed to testify against him. She is scheduled to be sentenced in April and faces up to five years in prison but is expected to be sentenced to less.
The Alpine congressman, who once said the investigation of his campaign finances was fueled by a “fake news” campaign by the media and a “deep state” plot in the federal government, on Monday said he decided to plead guilty and face prison time in an effort to protect his wife and their three children.
“Whatever my time in custody will be, I will take that hit,” he told San Diego television station KUSI in an interview aired Monday. “My only hope is that the judge does not sentence my wife to jail. I think my kids need a mom in the home.”
Prosecutors said resignation was not part of the plea deal, but that they expect Hunter to give up his seat soon, according the San Diego Union-Tribune.
First elected to Congress in 2008, Hunter represents central and northeastern San Diego County and a small part of Riverside County. Once Hunter’s resignation is official, Gov. Gavin Newsom will have 14 days to call for a special election to fill the seat.
Hunter’s decision to resign increases the likelihood that Republicans will hold onto the seat in November because of the Republican tilt of his 50th congressional district. Upon hearing of Hunter’s plan to plead guilty, nonpartisan analyst David Wasserman immediately changed the race’s ranking from “Lean Republican” to “Solid Republican.”
Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps congressional races, points out that the GOP has a nearly 13-point voter registration edge in the district.
“Democrats could certainly hold out hope as long as Duncan Hunter was under a cloud and going for reelection,” Sragow said. “If the Republicans nominate a viable candidate for Congress, it can be expected that they will keep the district.”
This week’s developments mark a dramatic downfall for Hunter, the son of a longtime congressman and a 42-year-old combat veteran who at one point won reelection with more than 70% of the vote.
Hunter was 3 years old when his father, Duncan Hunter Sr., was first elected to Congress in 1980. Shortly after graduating from San Diego State in 2001, Hunter was inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks to join the Marine Corps. He served in Baghdad and fought in the battle of Fallujah. He was placed on reserve in 2006 but was called back to active duty in 2007 for a tour in Afghanistan.
When his father decided to run for president in 2007 instead of seeking another term, Hunter campaigned for his seat and defeated a fellow veteran with 56% of the vote. It made him the first combat veteran of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to serve in Congress, where Hunter developed a reputation as a defense hawk like his father.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he strongly opposed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays and lesbians in the military, saying in an interview with NPR at the time that the bond between soldiers “is broken if you open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians.” He was one of the first House members to endorse Donald Trump and praised the president’s announcement that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in any capacity in the military.
Hunter was the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee before he was pressured by then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to step down from all of his committee assignments after he was indicted.
Hunter’s use of campaign funds — notably more than $1,300 in video game purchases — first drew the attention of the Union-Tribune and federal election officials in 2016.
Hunter blamed his son for those purchases, saying the boy had used the wrong credit card to sign up for a recurring purchase. He said he was seeking a refund.
Further investigation by the Union-Tribune, federal elections officials and prosecutors found more unusual spending by Hunter’s campaign, including a now-infamous cross-country airplane ride for the family rabbit — “Eggburt” — and payments to nail salons, for home repairs and on exotic vacations.
Court filings showed that the Hunters’ bank account was overdrawn more than 1,100 times and that at one point Margaret Hunter told her husband to buy a pair of Hawaiian shorts he couldn’t afford with the campaign credit card and claim that the charge was to help “wounded warriors.”
Hunter’s campaign treasurer’s office was raided by the FBI in February 2017. The warrant for the search detailed that agents were looking for evidence showing whether campaign funds were used for personal reasons, whether there was a scheme to defraud a bank over video game purchases, and whether campaign finance reports were falsified to “impede or influence” FBI and House Ethics Committee investigations.
That same year, the family sold their Alpine home and moved in with the elder Hunter to pay off debts. Hunter has spent more than $800,000 on attorneys’ fees since then, while continuing to profess his innocence. But in the KUSI interview, Hunter conceded that he erred.
“I think it’s important that people know that I did make mistakes,” Hunter said. “I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money. I justify my plea with the understanding that I am responsible for my own campaign and my own campaign money.”
There had been an increasing drumbeat of pressure for Hunter to resign rather than allow a reliably Republican seat to fall into Democratic hands. That argument drew former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa to enter the race.
While Hunter “deserves his day in court,” Issa said in September, according to NPR, “the 50th congressional district does deserve the ability to maintain this as a conservative district and quite frankly to have a member who can show up and take all of his committee assignments.”
Issa is not the only candidate running in the district, but he has significant advantages — nearly two decades representing northern San Diego County in Congress, including a four-year stint as the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, when he was among the most public faces of Republican efforts to investigate President Obama. Plus, he’s worth more than a quarter-billion dollars and previously spent $10 million self-financing an unsuccessful 1998 U.S. Senate campaign.
Another Republican seeking the seat is former San Diego City Councilman and activist Carl DeMaio.
Other candidates in the race include Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, whom Hunter narrowly defeated in the 2018 election after he had been indicted.
Wire reported from Washington and Mehta from Los Angeles.