SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego-area GOP congressman Duncan Hunter pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges accusing him and his wife of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds.
Prosecutors slapped the Hunters with a 60-count indictment Tuesday, including charges of wire fraud, falsification of records, prohibited use of campaign funds and other finance charges. According to the indictment, the Hunters misused campaign funds for family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, their children’s school tuition and videogames among other personal expenses.
The couple made their first appearance Thursday before U.S. District Magistrate Judge William Gallo in the Southern District of California. They both entered not guilty pleas and were released on relatively small bonds of $15,000 for Duncan Hunter and $10,000 for Margaret Hunter.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern told Gallo the couple’s “overall financial condition” needed to be considered in setting the bond amount. He said while the government “considers this to be an extremely serious campaign finance case” the couple has no assets and is “living paycheck to paycheck.”
Halpern said the couple has “known about this investigation for quite some time” – the Justice Department has been investigating claims of campaign finance violations for over a year following investigative stories by The San Diego Union-Tribune – and that the government does not believe they pose a flight risk.
Still, Gallo restricted the couple’s travel to the continental United States and barred them from traveling to nearby Mexico. The judge also ordered the congressman to surrender two firearms by next Monday.
Halpern said prosecutors are ready to share discovery files in the case with the Hunters’ attorneys – enough electronic information to fill a 2-terabyte hard drive – as soon as possible.
Outside the federal courthouse in San Diego, protesters from Hunter’s 50th Congressional District chanted “shame” and “lock him up.”
Hunter’s opponent in the November election, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, showed up following the court hearing and gave an impromptu speech to supporters.
He said he believes Washington has “chewed up” Hunter and “spat him out” and made him corrupt. He asked people to canvas on his behalf in District 50 and said it was time to bring “national pride” back to the rural San Diego County community.
The indictment may give Campa-Najjar – a former Labor Department official in the Obama administration – a fighting chance in picking up the congressional seat in the traditionally conservative stronghold. President Donald Trump carried the district by 15 points in 2016.
Before Hunter, R-Alpine, was elected in 2008, the seat was held by his father Duncan Lee Hunter for over two decades.
House Speaker Paul Ryan removed Hunter from his committee assignments following the indictment announcement and The San Diego Union-Tribune called on him to resign in an editorial this week. While Hunter initially refused to step down from his committees, The Hill reported Thursday afternoon he’s agreed to stand aside.
But he’s also vowed to fight the charges against him. In a statement Wednesday, Hunter called the prosecution a “witch hunt” and suggested the timing of the charges filed a couple months before the November election was “politically motivated.”
Hunter ran to a waiting pickup truck with his attorney Greg Vega following the court hearing. He did not speak to reporters.
His next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 4.