SAN DIEGO (CN) — Disregarding the request for house arrest — which former Representative Duncan Hunter hoped to get by expressing a fear of contracting coronavirus in prison — a federal judge sentenced the disgraced ex-congressman Tuesday to 11 months in prison for misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan decided on the sentence after hearing directly from Hunter in court Tuesday.
“I take full responsibility,” the 43-year-old said when he briefly addressed the judge.
Hunter faced a maximum of five years in prison. The Probation Department had recommended the 11-month sentence Whelan imposed Tuesday.
The former congressman will also be subjected to three years of supervised release once he completes his prison sentence and must complete an alcohol-treatment program.
Hunter asked Whelan to take pity on his wife, Margaret Hunter, who was also charged in the campaign-finance fraud case, asking the judge “to take sympathy on the mother of my children and not give her custody.”
Hunter was ordered to self-surrender to the Bureau of Prisons on May 29. When his defense attorney Devin Burstein asked Whelan how the court would handle extending the date in the event the coronavirus isn’t contained by then, the judge said he’d hold a court hearing to discuss the matter.
Whelan said at the outset of the hearing the parties discussed whether to continue the sentencing considering the pandemic but opted to move forward because Hunter wanted to.
The judge opted not to allow reporters to sit in the jury box as he had done at past hearings, to limit the number of audience members to the 36 gallery seats. Reporters and spectators sat shoulder-to-shoulder despite local, state and federal directives advising against close contact to prevent the spread of the respiratory disease officially dubbed COVID-19.
He was indicted on 60 charges in August 2018 alongside his wife and campaign-finance manager for allegedly misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses including their children’s school tuition, international vacations, expensive restaurant meals and a cross-country plane ticket for their pet rabbit, Eggburt.
Hunter’s father, Duncan Hunter Sr., told reporters following the hearing the rabbit died of old age.
Despite the indictment, Hunter was re-elected in 2018 to continue representing District 50 in California, which includes northeast San Diego County and a sliver of Riverside County.
At the hearing Tuesday, Whelan rejected a revived motion by Hunter’s defense team to have the indictment against him thrown out based on an alleged conflict of interest by U.S. attorneys involved in the case for attending a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.
The judge poked holes in an argument by Hunter’s attorney Paul Pfingst that a person’s political affiliation can affect their “moral compass,” pointing out that argument was negated by a letter of support Hunter included in his own sentencing memo to the court by his San Diego congressional colleague Juan Vargas, a Democrat.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said the last-ditch effort by Hunter to get the indictment tossed “is exactly why he should go to prison.”
Whelan took Hunter’s military career into consideration when sentencing him, saying his service “is certainly commendable.”
When addressing Whelan, Pfingst said Hunter’s military service had caused stress in his family and contributed to the deterioration of his marriage.
Pfingst said when Hunter was elected to Congress, “it was like he was being re-deployed again.”
He said Hunter and his wife had poor communication and both concealed the amount of campaign-finance money they were misspending.
“I don’t think either was aware of how much was going out of the campaign,” Pfingst said.
But Pfingst said Hunter was not the “threat to democracy” prosecutors had painted him to be.
“There is a lot of good that has been lost both as a solider, as a citizen and as a member of Congress,” Pfingst added.
While Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern said the Department of Justice agreed Hunter was a patriot, the former congressman did betray his office.
“There are too many people in this country who feel the people who write the laws are above the laws,” Halpern said, noting the first charges against Hunter related to misspending were from late 2009 — “right from the beginning” of his congressional career.
“This man, right from the very beginning, attacked the system of justice,” Halpern said.
“The only person that was lying was Duncan Hunter,” Halpern added, calling attention to “conspiracy theories” Hunter flouted that his prosecution was politically motivated for his early support of then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Following Hunter’s sentencing, prosecutors would not say whether they would request prison for Margaret Hunter.
She pleaded guilty in June 2019 and agreed to testify against her husband in the trial against him, which was rescheduled multiple times and was supposed to take place prior to the California primary election March 3.
Margaret Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced April 7.