Facing a mounting legal case against him, Rep. Duncan Hunter has sought to scuttle the charges by alleging a political conspiracy.
In a motion to dismiss the case filed Monday, attorneys for the California Republican argue that he was indicted, not because of evidence that he illegally used campaign funds for personal use and falsified campaign reports, but for the crime of endorsing President Donald Trump.
Hunter faces 60 criminal charges including conspiracy, theft of campaign money and wire fraud. He is accused of using campaign funds to pay for vacations, routine household expenses, expensive dinners and Uber rides before trying to cover it up.
Hunter’s attorneys argue that the case against him is the result not of his alleged criminal wrongdoing, but of political bias.
The motion argues that because two assistant U.S. attorneys with the Southern District of California attended a 2015 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, they have lost impartiality in the office’s case against Hunter — an early supporter of Trump.
An email exchanged between the Southern District of California and U.S. Secret Service in 2015, and released by Hunter’s attorney Gregory Vega Monday, said two attorneys on the Hunter case sought a photo opportunity with the Democratic presidential candidate.
The judge will determine whether appearing to support Clinton in her 2016 campaign constitutes an improper conflict of interest. Hunter’s attorneys asked that the case be dismissed, or that the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of California be taken off the case.
U.S. attorneys cannot raise money for candidates under the U.S. Hatch Act, which forbids certain political activities by employees of the executive branch. But attending a fundraiser for a political candidate is permitted, according to Department of Justice guidelines.
The motion is likely designed “more for public consumption than likely to lead to the dismissal of the case,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Loyola Law School.
“A good offense is always the best defense. And pointing to this email is Hunter's attorneys going on the offense,” Levenson said.
Hunter’s claim to a political conspiracy echoes Trump’s defense from evidence that he obstructed the investigation into his 2016 campaign — the debunked claim that special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III was “highly conflicted.”
In early June, Joyce White Vance, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller investigation about the expectation of political impartiality in all federal investigations.
“Like all prosecutors, all people, I’m an individual with personal views on politics and social issues. But one of the very first things I learned as a young prosecutor was to leave personal views at the office door when I entered on duty,” she said during testimony. “For prosecutors, there are only two relevant considerations when determining whether a case should be indicted: the law and the facts.”
Hunter’s wife, former campaign manager and co-defendant Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of conspiracy in an agreement with prosecutors. The move signals that she is cooperating with the prosecution to supply information as they build a case against the congressman.
Vega has said that he will defend his client using the “Speech or Debate” clause of the U.S. Constitution, but some legal experts say doesn’t apply in his case.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.