SAN DIEGO (CN) – A federal judge denied U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter’s bid to dismiss federal campaign finance fraud charges Monday, saying there’s no evidence of a conflict of interest by prosecutors who attended a 2015 fundraiser for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before Hunter became the first member of Congress to endorse President Donald Trump.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan said Monday “it’s certainly clear” the contents of an email between federal prosecutors and the Secret Service regarding a photo op at the Clinton fundraiser in La Jolla, California – obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Hunter’s attorneys – only included instructions for taking a photo with Clinton and did not show U.S. attorneys involved in the Hunter investigation were at the fundraiser as private citizens.
Prosecutors have said Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alana Robinson and Emily Allen attended the fundraiser in their official capacity for security purposes.
Hunter’s attorneys maintain the charges against the congressman are politically motivated, with Hunter calling the case a “witch hunt” shortly after a 60-count indictment was filed against him in the Southern District of California this past Auguest.
Whelan disagreed the case is politically motivated.
“When the government started its investigation the U.S. Attorney did have probable cause to initiate the investigation, regardless of attending a political fundraiser,” Whelan said.
“There is no indication the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California has a conflict of interest,” he added.
Whelan pointed out charges were filed against Hunter and his wife and campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, after complaints about questionable campaign spending spurred investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Federal Election Commission.
Margaret Hunter, the congressman’s wife and campaign manager, pleaded guilty last month to one charge of conspiracy for converting campaign funds to personal use. As part of her plea agreement, she agreed to testify against her husband if called by prosecutors. Her sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 16, a week after the trial against her husband is set to begin.
Greg Vega, Duncan Hunter’s attorney, told Whelan the issue at the heart of the case was “the perception of the loss of impartiality.”
Vega said prosecutors did not start their investigation until Hunter endorsed Trump and that they were trying to flip “one of a few” California congressional seats held by a Republican by filing charges against Hunter 76 days before the 2018 election.
“At every fork in the road in this investigation, the government took the one that was hardest on my client,” Vega said.
Vega requested the production of all internal emails and communications between the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego and the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. Whelan did not respond to that request.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover called Hunter’s defense a “smoke-and-mirrors distraction from overwhelming evidence.”
He pointed out Vega was at the same Clinton fundraiser attended by some of the U.S. attorneys, noting Vega donated to Clinton’s campaign to attend the event.
“The logic would mean Mr. Vega is biased against his own client,” Conover said.
Whelan also disputed there was presumptive prejudice against Hunter, finding negative editorials written about Hunter didn’t prevent him from getting re-elected “pretty easily” last year. He denied the change of venue motion based on that argument.
But Whelan deferred ruling whether to change the trial venue based on actual prejudice, finding that can’t be determined until jury selection gets underway. The judge set aside four weeks, “out of an abundance of caution,” to question and select a jury.
Hunter’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 10 in Whelan’s courtroom.