Congress

Duncan Hunter pleads guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds

Hunter faced 60 counts, most of which will be dismissed

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiring to use campaign funds for personal expenses. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiring with his wife, Margaret, to knowingly and willfully convert his campaign funds for personal expenditures.

He faces a maximum of five years in prison; a maximum $250,000 fine; and a maximum of three years supervised release. 

On Monday, Hunter changed his not guilty plea to guilty on one count of misusing campaign funds. His trial was scheduled for Jan. 22, in which he faced a 60-count indictment for using over $250,000 in campaign money on personal effects, including bar tabs, video games, golf outings and international trips.

Paul Pfingst, Hunter’s lawyer, said Tuesday the congressman is returning to Washington and will make a public statement. Mike Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, said his boss will discuss next steps with Republican leadership when he gets to Capitol Hill. 

Whether Hunter will resign remains to be seen. 

“He’s going back to Washington today, and he intends to put out a public statement, but I don’t know when and I don’t know what it’s going to say,” Pfinsgt told CQ Roll Call.

Prosecutors alleged Hunter pursued intimate personal relationships with congressional staffers and lobbyists and used campaign funds on those endeavors. 

Sentencing is set for March 17, and the remaining counts of the original 60-count indictment will be dismissed then. 

Pfinst said Hunter’s guilty plea is a way to put the congressman’s legal troubles behind him, but he was also disappointed his client pleaded guilty to one count.

“It’s mixed feelings,” he said. “I found Duncan to be a really committed patriotic American congressman who is very proud of his country and this obviously will affect his future. And I think he contributed to Congress and the military.”

One of the alleged extramarital affairs involved Individual 16, who began working in Hunter’s congressional office in January of 2015. In June of that year, Hunter and Individual 16 went on a triple date to H Street Country Club, where he allegedly spent $202 in campaign money on drinks and snacks at the bar, along with a $20 dollar Uber ride.

It is against House Ethics Committee rules for a member of Congress to engage in a sexual relationship with a subordinate. Former Rep. Katie Hill resigned this year after facing allegations she had a relationship with a staffer. 

“Not a single dime of taxpayer money is involved in this,” he told San Diego’s KUSI News Monday. “The plea that I accepted was misuse of my own campaign funds of which I plead guilty to only one count.”

“I did make mistakes,” Hunter acknowledged to KUSI News. “I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money.”

“It’s been a privilege to serve in Congress for 11 years,” he told KUSI News. 

Hunter has served California’s 50th district since 2008, when he won the seat previously occupied by his father, Duncan Lee Hunter. His father was elected to Congress in 1980 after serving in Vietnam.

The 50th is a traditionally Republican district. Trump carried the 50th District in northeastern San Diego County by 15 points in 2016 and Hunter won re-election by 3 points in 2018 despite facing the indictment.

At least two GOP challengers had already filed to run against Hunter in 2020. Former Rep. Darrell Issa and former San Diego city Councilmember Carl DeMaio, were also reportedly considering bids if Hunter did not run. Issa retired from Congress after narrowly winning re-election in 2016, and DeMaio ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd District in 2014.

Hunter’s 2018 Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, an official in former President Barack Obama’s administration, is running again in 2020. 

Hunter has been dogged by ethics, campaign finance, legal and personal trouble since 2016. In August 2018 the Hunters were indicted for allegedly using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including dental work and trips to Italy and Hawaii.

To conceal their purchases, the Hunters misclassified purchases in their campaign finance records, labeling expenses as “campaign travel” or “dinner with volunteers” in submissions to the Federal Election Commission.

Following the indictment, Republican leaders in the House stripped Hunter of his committee assignments. The House Ethics Committee authorized an investigation into him, but deferred to the Department of Justice until that process ends. 

In June, Margaret Hunter entered a guilty plea in the federal campaign finance case against her and her husband. She pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to misuse of campaign funds.

“We haven’t seen what his wife admitted to even to this day,” Pfinsgt said, noting that they are still married but not living together.

Hunter is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hunter quit his job as an information technology analyst and joined the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq twice — he was ambushed just five hours into his first tour, and later fought in the first battle of Fallujah — and served one tour in Afghanistan as a reservist.

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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