SAN DIEGO (CN) – Embattled GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to a single count of converting campaign funds for personal use Tuesday, after claiming for over a year the prosecution against him was a “political witch hunt.”
Hunter announced his change of heart in an interview with San Diego news station KUSI on Monday, the day before a hearing in the Southern District of California.
“I think it’s important not to have a public trial for three reasons, and those three reasons are my kids,” Hunter said.
Hunter pleaded guilty to count 1 of the 60-count indictment, knowingly and willfully converting campaign funds to personal use. The charge stems from $511 spent on a personal family celebration for his daughter’s birthday in 2011 as well as a $409 French dinner in Washington with “several of his closest friends” in 2016.
“I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about. I’ll have more statements in the future, about the future,” Hunter told reporters following the court hearing.
According to the 12-page plea agreement, Hunter and his co-defendant – wife and campaign manager Margaret Hunter – converted campaign funds to personal use from 2010 through 2016.
The Hunters each face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern told reporters following the court hearing: “The fact [Margaret Hunter] is cooperating with the government will play a role in her sentencing.”
Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced March 17, while his wife – who already pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to convert campaign funds to personal use – is scheduled to be sentenced April 13.
Halpern said the government considers family care needs when deciding whether prison terms for families should be staggered. He also said Hunter’s resignation was not part of the plea deal with prosecutors, but they understood he would resign after pleading guilty.
When asked by a reporter when Hunter would resign, Halpern said, “You’d have to ask him that.”
But he added: “No figure, regardless of the heights they’ve reached, no figure, regardless of what they’ve contributed, and no figure, regardless of what office they occupy should be allowed in this country to cry ‘witch hunt’ or ‘fake news’ at attempt to deflect their criminal wrongdoing.”
Hunter acknowledged in the KUSI interview he’d be leaving Congress. But it still is not clear when and if a special election will be held in District 50 in the months before the November 2020 election.
“It’s been a privilege to serve in Congress for 11 years” in addition to serving three tours in the Marine Corps, Hunter said in the KUSI interview.
“I’m confident that the transition will be a good one,” he said. “We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes this seat next and we’ll make sure that’s a seamless transition.”
Hunter also suggested he may spend time in custody, saying, “I will take that hit.”
Halpern confirmed prosecutors would likely ask for Hunter to be sentenced to more than a year in prison.
His guilty plea and likely departure from Congress makes the District 50 congressional race a closely watched one following the “Blue Wave” where Democrats swept up Republican-held seats in Orange County last year.
Hunter told KUSI he will help ensure the seat remains red after his departure.
“Last year I was the only Republican to be elected to Congress in Orange County and San Diego. I think it’s important to keep the seat a Republican seat,” he said. “I think it’s really important to keep the seat in the right hands and the right column.”
One of Hunter’s Republican challengers, Carl DeMaio, said in a statement: “Congressman Hunter’s decision to plead guilty is the right one for his family and his constituents and shows that no one should be above the law – especially members of Congress.”
Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democratic challenger who lost to Hunter in 2018 and is running again in District 50, said in a statement that “people, not political scandals, will come first again” for the first time in years.
“We need a bipartisan local leader to restore integrity, the public trust and bring people together to deliver results,” Campa-Najjar added.
Both DeMaio and Campa-Najjar were at the federal courthouse in San Diego during Hunter’s court hearing.
The trial, scheduled to begin on Jan. 22, had been postponed twice since the Justice Department filed 60 charges against Hunter and his wife and campaign manager Margaret Hunter in August 2018.
Prosecutors say the couple misspent more than $250,000 in campaign finance funds on personal expenditures including their children’s school tuition, family vacations and a cross-country airline ticket for the family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt.
The charges came after The San Diego Union-Tribune published a series of investigative stories looking at Hunter’s campaign expenditures reported in April 2016. The Federal Election Commission and House Ethics Committee also investigated the campaign’s spending.
An appeal filed by Hunter with the Ninth Circuit was dismissed following the court hearing Tuesday.
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