Wife of GOP Congressman Flips, Pleads Guilty to Campaign-Finance Charges

Left to right: Phillip Halpern, Margaret Hunter, Thomas McNamara, Judge Thomas Whelan. (Krentz Johnson)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Margaret Hunter, the wife and campaign manager of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pleaded guilty Thursday to one charge of conspiracy for converting campaign funds to personal use, agreeing to testify against her husband if called upon by prosecutors.

Federal prosecutors indicted the Hunters this past August on charges the couple spent over $250,000 in campaign funds on personal use. They pleaded not guilty to the charges later that month.

The charges stem from an investigation by the Justice Department prompted by investigative reporting by The San Diego Union-Tribune into the congressman’s campaign spending.

Margaret Hunter appeared before U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan on Thursday to change her plea, wearing a black blazer and gray slacks and flanked by her attorneys Thomas McNamara and Logan Daniel Smith.

She pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiring with her co-defendant, Rep. Hunter, to “knowingly and willfully convert Duncan D. Hunter for Congress Campaign Committee funds to personal use.”

“Defendant and Hunter had an implicit agreement that they would and could illegally use campaign funds for personal use, both when they were together and when they were apart, and they confirmed their understanding of this agreement by performing numerous overt acts, many of which required their joint coordination and planning,” according to the plea agreement.

Margaret Hunter faces a maximum of five years in prison, five years of probation, a $250,000 fine and mandatory special assessment of $100. If imprisonment is imposed, she could face up to three years of supervised release.

Rep. Hunter was not present at court Thursday. The couple is still legally married, though following their initial appearance in court, they have arrived at subsequent court hearings separately and sat away from each other in the courtroom.

As part of a 22-page plea agreement signed Tuesday but made available by the court Thursday, Margaret Hunter admitted the couple spent thousands of dollars on vacations to Las Vegas and Italy, lavish meals and souvenirs for their children on a trip to Disneyland, among other personal spending.

Margaret Hunter, left, wife of indicted Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, arrives at federal courthouse in downtown San Diego on Thursday. Hunter, who had previously pleaded not guilty to correction charges, withdrew that plea in U.S. court in San Diego and pleaded guilty to a single count carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison. The misuse of campaign funds spanned from 2010 to the end of 2016. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

The conspiracy began in 2010, and the Hunters misspent campaign funds through 2016, according to the plea agreement.

The couple “spent substantially more than they earned,” overdrawing their bank account 1,100 times in a seven-year period and racking up $37,761 in “overdraft” and “insufficient funds” bank fees. The couple also maxed out their credit cards, often with five-figure balances, resulting in $24,600 in finance charges, interest and other late fees, according to the plea agreement.

Margaret Hunter resisted “legitimate inquiries” by campaign staff regarding her credit card statements and spending. Rep. Hunter refused to remove his wife’s access to campaign funds after campaign staff warned about improper spending, according to the plea agreement. He accused his treasurer of disloyalty and “trying to create some kind of paper trail on me,” the plea agreement says.

In an attempt to conceal misspending on vacations, Rep. Hunter attempted to schedule events that were “supposedly campaign-related” even though the meetings would only be a small portion of the family’s vacation or wouldn’t take place at all, according to the plea agreement.

As part of the agreement, Margaret Hunter also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and “tell everything defendant knows about every person involved presently or in the past” in conduct outlined in the case. She will provide statements under penalty of perjury and to testify before a grand jury or at trial proceedings if called by prosecutors.

Following Thursday’s hearing, Margaret Hunter’s attorney Thomas McNamara read a statement on her behalf in which she “fully accepted responsibility for my conduct.”

“I am deeply remorseful and I apologize … I understand that there will be more consequences stemming from my actions, but as demonstrated this morning by the entry of the plea, I have taken the first step to face those consequences,” Margaret Hunter said in the statement.

McNamara and Margaret Hunter were chased by a gaggle of journalists and photographs, but she did not speak to reporters. The duo left the courthouse in a black Mercedes.

Margaret Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 16, a week after the trial against Rep. Hunter is set to begin.

Rep. Hunter’s attorney, Greg Vega, a former U.S. attorney currently with San Diego firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, did not return an email request for comment.

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