Rep. Duncan Hunter submitted his resignation from Congress on Tuesday, marking the end of an 11-year stint in the House marred by his misuse of campaign funds for a variety of endeavors, including spending money on Lego sets, movie tickets, a $14,000 family vacation to Italy and flights for his family’s pet bunny rabbit.
In his resignation letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Hunter said his resignation would be effective Jan. 13. “It has been an honor to serve the people of California’s 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years,” he wrote.
The California Republican pleaded guilty in federal court on Dec. 3 to using hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for his own enrichment. Hunter and his wife, Margaret, who pleaded guilty in June, illegally converted over $150,000 in campaign funds from 2010 through 2016 to buy goods and services for their own interests, according to the plea agreement. Hunter’s sentencing is scheduled for March 17 before U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan in the Southern District of California.
The soon-to-be-ex-congressman could serve between eight and 14 months in jail, but Whelan will be the ultimate arbiter. The charge Hunter pleaded guilty to— conspiracy to steal campaign funds — carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
“Not a single dime of taxpayer money is involved in this,” Hunter told San Diego’s KUSI News in December. “The plea that I accepted was misuse of my own campaign funds of which I plead guilty to only one count.”
He did, though, say he made “mistakes,” adding, “I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money.”
Hunter’s exit was expected: he issued a statement on Dec. 6 making his intent to resign his seat clear.
“Shortly after the Holidays I will resign from Congress. It has been an honor to serve the people of California’s 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years,” he said in the statement.
“Senior leadership in both the district and D.C. office plan to stay at the current time to ensure continuity and constituent services,” said Mike Harrison, Hunter’s communications director. He added that Rick Terrazas, Hunter’s chief of staff will stay on in D.C.
Harrison had no comment on what Hunter’s plans are for the future and noted Hunter’s upcoming sentencing hearing.
Had Hunter not accepted the plea agreement, he would have faced trial in the Southern District of California on Jan. 22. He was indicted in August 2018, a lengthy filing in which federal prosecutors charged Hunter and his wife in a 60-count indictment.
They alleged Hunter pursued intimate personal relationships with congressional staffers and lobbyists and used campaign funds on those activities. Two of those alleged romantic partners worked in the House, one on Hunter’s congressional staff and one in House leadership. House rules prohibit members from having sexual relationships with subordinates.
The indictment also alleged Hunter spent $354 of campaign funds on March 4, 2016, on drinks at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington during a bachelor party. That indictment also alleged Hunter spent $462 of campaign money on 30 tequila shots and one steak at another Washington, D.C., location, El Tamarindo, which is on the same block as Jack Rose.
Shortly after he was indicted, Hunter vehemently denied that he used campaign funds for personal expenditures and denigrated the Department of Justice prosecutors as being driven by partisan ambitions. He also welcomed the opportunity to go to trial.
The government expressed confidence in the case had it gone to trial. “Congressman Duncan D. Hunter violated the trust of his supporters by diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars they donated in good faith to his reelection campaign for personal expenditures,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Leshner in a statement after the government secured Hunter’s guilty plea. “This was not an accounting mistake by his campaign. This was a deliberate, years-long violation of the law. Congressman Hunter used the power of his position to fund a lifestyle out of his reach, unwittingly financed by those who put him there. His guilty plea entered today acknowledges and accepts responsibility for his conduct.”
After he was indicted, Hunter was stripped of his committee assignments by Republican leadership and the House Ethics Committee announced an investigation into the lawmaker, which was on hold until the Justice Department investigation ended. Now that Hunter is no longer a member of Congress, the Ethics panel does not have jurisdiction over him. The committee told Hunter not to vote after he pleaded guilty.
There was also an allegation that he groped a woman, Rory Riley-Topping, when she worked on Capitol Hill. Hunter called the allegation “total baloney.”
Hunter was first elected in 2008 to fill the seat previously held by his father, Duncan Lee Hunter, a Vietnam veteran who was elected to Congress in 1980. The younger Hunter served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s not yet clear when a special election will be held to replace Hunter. Under California law, Newsom has 14 calendar days after a vacancy occurs to issue a proclamation for the special election to be held within 140 days.
California’s 50th District in northeastern San Diego is traditionally Republican. Trump carried the 50th District by 15 points in 2016 and Hunter won reelection by 3 points in 2018 despite facing the indictment.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa and former San Diego city councilmember Carl DeMaio — both Republicans — jumped in the race to challenge Hunter and are running for the now-open seat. Issa retired from Congress after narrowly winning reelection 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’s seat is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list, but the race could be further out of Democrats’ reach without the beleaguered Hunter on the ballot.
California’s primary is set for March 3. The top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.
Bridget Bowman, Katherine Tully-McManus and Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.