SAN DIEGO (CN) — Margaret Hunter, the estranged wife of ex-Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, was sentenced to eight months home detention Monday, just over two years after an indictment alleging campaign finance fraud was filed against the couple that upended a Southern California GOP dynasty.
Credited with prompting her husband to plead guilty after she herself did so last summer, Margaret Hunter tearfully told U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan, a Bill Clinton appointee: “I continue to take responsibility. I’m deeply sorry.”
Prosecutors agreed, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen telling Whelan Margaret Hunter’s guilty plea last summer “had a lot of important consequences and led to Duncan Hunter accepting responsibility.”
“Her decision to cooperate with the government was a wrenching one,” Allen said.
Margaret Hunter’s home detention sentence begins immediately, as does her term of three-year’s probation.
Judge Whelan restricted all movement outside the home except for employment, education, religious services, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and court proceedings. He banned Margaret Hunter from seeking employment with fiduciary responsibility.
Duncan Hunter was sentenced to serve 11 months in prison in March, but his sentence was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He is scheduled to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons Jan, 4, 2021. He served 11 years in Congress representing District 50 in California, which includes northeast San Diego County and a sliver of Riverside County, before resigning.
While Allen noted Margaret Hunter’s role in the campaign finance scandal was “critical” as she spent most of the stolen campaign funds on her own credit card, her husband Duncan Hunter “was the elected official, the decision-maker and allowed this to go on for years,” Allen told Whelan on Monday.
“He did this in large part because it insulated him from scrutiny. If Margaret Hunter spent the money, he could claim to be unaware of it,” Allen said, pointing out that’s exactly what Duncan Hunter did when the indictment was filed against the couple Aug. 21, 2018.
Margaret Hunter faced a maximum of five years in prison for wire fraud, falsification of records and prohibited use of campaign contributions charges for conspiring with her husband to steal $250,000 in campaign funds made to Duncan Hunter’s congressional campaign.
The charges were filed by the Justice Department after an investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune revealed questionable spending by Hunter’s campaign including on private school tuition, international vacations, expensive restaurant meals and a cross-country plane ticket for the family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt.
The couple initially pleaded not guilty, but Margaret Hunter flip-flopped last summer, leading her husband to follow suit.
There are no divorce records for the couple, who are estranged. When she pleaded guilty last summer, Margaret Hunter agreed to testify against her husband in the trial which was scheduled for this past January.
During his sentencing in March, Duncan Hunter asked Whelan “to take sympathy on the mother of my children and not give her custody.”
A sentencing memo noted “Ms. Hunter had hoped to spare her children a prolonged public spectacle through a pre-indictment plea.”
Apparently after learning about the federal investigation into their campaign spending in spring 2017, Margaret Hunter’s attorneys informed the Department of Justice she was willing to plead guilty.
But federal prosecutors did not offer Margaret Hunter a guilty plea during their investigation and prior to the indictment being filed against the couple.
“Ms. Hunter built a cocoon around her children, so they would suffer as little collateral damage as possible from the sins of their parents. While she was unable to reach a pre-indictment plea, her actions, guilty plea and cooperation with the government were instrumental in avoiding a very public trial that would undoubtedly have been very painful for her family and her children,” her attorneys wrote.
While Margaret Hunter’s attorneys and prosecutors agreed to jointly request she carry out her sentence at home, Allen recognized the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the public “to serve some amount of home confinement in our lives.”
Seeking the emphasize the punitive nature of her sentence, Allen sought for Margaret Hunter to begin her sentence in January 2021.
But Margaret Hunter’s attorney Logan Smith with San Diego-based McNamara Smith said he “would like Ms. Hunter to get on with her life and take the next step moving forward.”
Hunter plans to work toward her goal of earning a college degree and getting a job during her home detention, Smith said.
When handing down the sentence, Whelan noted in his more than 20 years as a federal judge and issuing more than 3,000 sentences, he has never seen this level of cooperation between prosecutors and a defendant.
Following the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said Margaret Hunter’s sentence was appropriate, especially after she was initially blamed by her husband when charges were filed against the couple.
“We believe this sentence is appropriate because not only did she have to withstand being thrown under the proverbial bus by her husband, but she took responsibility and accepted responsibility early,” Conover said.