SAN DIEGO (CN) – Embattled Republican congressman Duncan Hunter won’t face trial on charges of campaign finance fraud until next year, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, postponing the highly anticipated trial to a crucial election year.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan reset what’s expected to be a weeks-long trial for Jan. 14, 2020. Hunter faces charges of misspending $250,000 in campaign contributions on family trips, his children’s school tuition and a cross-country flight for his family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern suggested prosecutors would prefer an earlier trial date since the previous date was scheduled for September, Whelan retorted: “I would have preferred a trial last year if we’re talking about preferences.”
Whelan found good cause to postpone the trial since Hunter has appealed the judge’s decision not to dismiss the charges to the Ninth Circuit.
Hunter claims the 60-count indictment should be dismissed under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, under which a member of Congress cannot be charged for “legislative acts” made in the course and scope of their official responsibilities.
The congressman from the east San Diego county community of Alpine attended Tuesday’s hearing.
The Ninth Circuit initially determined it likely lacked jurisdiction because Hunter is not challenging a final judgment or order. Criminal cases typically can’t be appealed until a verdict is issued.
But the appellate court gave Hunter until Sept. 6 to say why the Ninth Circuit does have jurisdiction over his appeal, with prosecutors filing a response afterwards.
Hunter’s attorney Devin Burstein told Whelan on Tuesday the earliest the parties would likely receive an answer on jurisdiction from a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel would be early October.
Hunter’s wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, was also charged in the case. She pleaded guilty in June to a single charge of conspiracy for converting campaign funds to personal use. As part of her plea deal, she could be called on by prosecutors to testify against her husband in his trial.
Margaret Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced in Whelan’s courtroom on Dec. 2.