By Ken Stone
A day after a stubble-faced Rep. Duncan D. Hunter loudly challenged his indictment on federal charges, the East County congressman was clean-shaven and subdued for his arraignment.
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“Lock him up!” chanted protesters wearing bunny ears as he arrived Thursday at the downtown U.S. courthouse.
“Not guilty,” pleaded Hunter and then his wife, Margaret, at 10:32 a.m. in the second-floor courtroom of Judge William Gallo.
Margaret Hunter stepped into the packed but quiet courtroom at 10:24, taking a seat four to the right of her husband, who arrived 42 minutes earlier via separate vehicle.
The couple, married 20 years, rarely looked at each other before or during the 10-minute proceeding, where they were charged with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including family vacations, dental bills, theater tickets and international travel for relatives.
During the bail discussion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern told the judge “the fact is they don’t have substantive assets” and were “living paycheck to paycheck.”
The government said the Hunters weren’t considered a flight risk, so Gallo set bond at $15,000 for Hunter and $10,000 for his wife, which he said was “adequate given their overall financial condition.” It’s due by Tuesday.
They also were told to give up DNA samples, “stay employed” and be subject to drug testing no more than eight times a month.
Asked if they understood the conditions, the Hunters separately said: “Yes, your honor.”
A half-hour later, after processing that presumably included fingerprinting, the 41-year-old former Marine exited the front entrance of the Edward J. Schwartz U.S. Courthouse on Broadway.
He ignored a phalanx of TV cameras and a lectern brimming with microphones and said nothing while walking to a waiting black Ford pickup. Margaret left another way.
“Shame on you, shame on you!” said a couple dozen protesters trailing him, including those with the Indivisible group.
As Hunter left, his attorney Greg Vega said: “On behalf of Congressman Hunter and his wife, Margaret, we are hoping the public will keep an open mind until we have an opportunity to respond in a court of law, not the court of public opinion.”
The Hunters were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in San Diego on charges of conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, wire fraud, falsification of records and prohibited use of campaign contributions.
At least one protester held a sign saying “Crooked Duncan Hunter.” The legal proceeding came 13 years after another San Diego County congressman — Randy “Duke” Cunningham — pleaded guilty to taking bribes, resigning the House in tears.
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Before Hunter swept past cameras, his Democratic rival, Ammar Campa-Najjar, strolled into the shade of the five-story Schwartz building and stood before mikes meant for others.
He said he wanted to bring “national pride, not national shame” to the area, citing previous scandals involving Cunningham and Democratic Rep. Jim Bates, ousted from the House in the wake of sex harassment accusations.
“I know it’s going to start getting mud-slingy,” said Campa, the 29-year-old son of an Arab father and Mexican-American mother. “But I want to say thank you for your service to our country. Congressman Hunter served our country honorably abroad.
“I happen to think that that man … never made it home from the battlefield, and then Washington chewed him up and spat him out and engulfed him in the corruption that has plagued Washington for too long.”
Also present was retired Army 1st Sgt. Tom Iarossi, who lives in Hunter’s district.
“Duncan Hunter is a Marine Corps combat veteran,” he said before the arraignment. “All four of the service branches have values. In the Marines, they are ‘honor, courage and commitment.'”
The five-term lawmaker has violated those values, said Iarossi, associated with Indivisible 50 and Veterans for Amar.
“As far as I am concerned, he has fouled the uniform that he once wore,” he said. “He has thrown his wife under the bus; he blames his problems on Democrats. He blames his problems on everybody but himself. I am ashamed to say that we served in the same military.”
A half-hour before the 10:30 (on the dot) arraignment, five seats were still open in the wood-paneled courtroom. Hunter popped a gum into his mouth and briefly looked at his phone.
Thirteen minutes before the “All rise” command, media members including artist Krentz Johnson were ushered into the jury box to free up space for the public (including T-shirted members of Indivisible). During the short proceedings, Margaret Hunter, hair tied in a ponytail, stood with purse at her side, finally letting it rest on the floor after six minutes.
On Wednesday, Hunter blasted the timing of the indictment, saying the Department of Justice decided to take the action right before the general election in November.
Although he represents a solidly conservative district, Democrats have been targeting his seat — thanks largely to the federal investigation of Hunter.
The congressman called the two-year investigation leading up to the indictment a “witch hunt,” saying it was politically motivated. He said he would continue to fight to clear his name.
Federal prosecutors said they identified “scores of instances” between 2009 and 2016 in which the Hunters used campaign funds to pay for “personal expenses that they could not otherwise afford.”
Among the personal expenses they allegedly funded with campaign cash were family vacations to locations such as Hawaii and Italy, along with school tuition and smaller purchases such as golf outings, movie tickets, video games, coffee and expensive meals.
The couple allegedly misreported the expenses on FEC filings, using false descriptions such as “campaign travel,” “toy drives,” “dinner with volunteers/contributors” and “gift cards,” according to federal prosecutors.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the charges against Hunter “deeply serious” and removed him from his committee assignments “pending the resolution of this matter.”
Hunter, who represents the sprawling largely rural 50th District in East County, was a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and chairman of its Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, the House Armed Services Committee and Education and the Workforce Committee.
Hunter was elected to Congress in 2008, after his father, Duncan Lee Hunter (who wasn’t in court Thursday) opted not to seek re-election.
The Hunters are both due back in court at 9 a.m. Sept. 4 for a motions hearing.
Updated at 3:40 p.m. Aug. 23, 2018
— City News Service and Chris Stone contributed to this report.
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