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Rep. Duncan Hunter’s wife admits guilt in campaign finance scandal

Congressman Duncan Hunter leaves San Diego federal court on September 24, 2018. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Years of cavalier spending of her husband’s political contributions culminated in a guilty plea Thursday for Margaret Hunter, the wife of Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter who was co-indicted last year in a sweeping campaign-finance investigation.

During a change-of-plea hearing in the federal courthouse in San Diego, Margaret Hunter formally admitted that she illegally used thousands of dollars in campaign donations for her personal expenses.

Specifically, Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy. She faces up to five years in federal custody and a $250,000 fine when she is sentenced Sept. 16. She also could receive up to three years of supervised probation following her release from prison.

When asked if she understood and agreed with the plea, she said, “Yes, sir.”

The admission to a single criminal count represents a huge disparity from the dozens of counts she and her husband initially confronted. The remaining counts would be dismissed at the time of sentencing.

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The 22-page agreement makes clear that Margaret Hunter has been cooperating with prosecutors for months — and her eventual sentence will reflect that help.

“The United States has made a preliminary determination that Defendant’s cooperation will merit a five-level downward departure,” one footnote to the agreement reads. “This recommendation, however, is contingent on her continuing to cooperate and provide a truthful and accurate recounting of all relevant events up to and including the time of her sentencing.”

Margaret Hunter waived all rights to appeal, the agreement states.

According to the plea deal, Margaret Hunter acknowledged two specific elements of the conspiracy charge — one, that she knowingly and willfully converted campaign funds to criminal use and two, that she knowingly filed false records and concealed material facts.

In a statement outside the courthouse, defense attorney Thomas McNamara read a brief statement from Margaret Hunter expressing remorse for her crimes.

“Earlier this morning I entered a guilty plea in the United States District Court,” the statement began. “In doing so, I have fully accepted responsibility for my conduct. I am deeply remorseful and I apologize.

“I am saddened for the hurt that I have caused my family and others,” the statement continued. “I understand there will be more consequences stemming from my actions, but as demonstrated this morning in entering the plea, I have taken the first step to face those consequences.”

McNamara declined to elaborate on the prepared remarks.

“We’re not going to answer questions here,” he said before walking away from reporters.

Both Hunters were named in a 60-count federal indictment in August alleging that together and separately they both relied on more than $250,000 donated to the congressman’s re-election fund for personal expenses.

Among other things, the campaign funds paid for family vacations, tequila shots, golf outings, resort stays, fine dining and private-school tuition for their children, according to the indictment.

Margaret Hunter, who previously served as the paid treasurer for her husband’s campaigns, twice used political donations to pay for airfare to Warsaw, Poland, for her mother, according to the indictment.

She also spent hundreds of dollars of campaign funds on a family visit to the San Diego Natural History Museum and a lunch at The Prado restaurant in Balboa Park, prosecutors said.

Until Thursday, both Hunters denied the allegations and pledged to fight the charges in court.

After Margaret Hunter’s plea hearing, Hunter released a statement saying, “I do not have the full details of Margaret’s case, but it’s obvious that the Department of Justice (DOJ) went after her to get to me for political reasons. As Margaret’s case concludes, she should be left alone. I am the congressman, this is my campaign and any further attention on this issue should be directed solely to me.”

The statement went on to repeat his prior claims that prosecutors in his case are politically biased against him, that the criminal investigation was politically motivated and that the matter should have been handled by the Federal Election Commission, not the DOJ.

Duncan Hunter finished his statement by saying he would not answer any questions.

The six-term congressman from Alpine has declined to comment publicly about his wife’s change in legal strategy, but his attorney said Wednesday the guilty plea would have no immediate effect on his client’s case.

“At this time, that does not change anything regarding Congressman Hunter,” defense attorney Gregory Vega said in a statement before the hearing. “There are still significant motions that need to be litigated.”

Duncan Hunter, who was stripped of all of his committee seats after the August indictment but was re-elected to his 50th District seat last fall, did not appear at the courthouse Thursday. He is next due to appear in his case July 1 to debate various legal motions.

The absence was notable because the Hunters began their criminal defense last summer by appearing in court together to deny all charges.

At more recent hearings, the Hunters arrived to court separately and did not sit together in the public galley. The couple remain legally married and have three children.

It was not immediately clear how the couple’s marital standing could affect the case against the congressman.

Vega did not respond to questions about spousal privilege. Legal experts said the husband-and-wife relationship of the two defendants could complicate the prosecution.

The federal indictment issued in August came after two-plus years of scrutiny by federal campaign regulators and The San Diego Union-Tribune of Rep. Hunter’s campaign spending.

In filing after filing, Hunter disclosed spending that did not appear to satisfy federal campaign rules, including donations being used for video-game purchases, garage door repair, utility bills and more.

The congressman once used campaign funds to pay for a plane ticket to fly his family’s pet rabbit across the country.

Duncan Hunter originally said some of the questionable spending was done by mistake, at one point saying his son had selected the wrong credit card when he paid the video-game charges.

Later, he declared that he and his campaign team had vetted every expenditure and identified some payments that may not have qualified as campaign expenses. He ultimately repaid the fund about $60,000.

But that did not quell the investigation — or continuing reports by the Union-Tribune about his specific expenses.

Duncan Hunter dismissed the stories as “fake news” and said the newspaper was out to get him. After federal prosecutors opened their criminal investigation, Hunter declared he was being targeted by “deep state” partisans within the FBI and others in the U.S. government.

In one televised interview with Fox News, Hunter laid the blame for any campaign-filing errors on his wife, who had been paid $3,000 a month to serve as the campaign treasurer.

“Whatever she did, that’ll be looked at too,” Hunter said on national T.V. “But I didn’t do it. I didn’t spend any money illegally.”

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.