Reporters awaiting a federal court hearing Monday for Republican Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and his wife quietly speculated that a settlement was at hand in the corruption case.
But the smiling, relaxed body language of U.S. prosecutors was a false alarm.
Instead, a white-haired judge set a Sept. 10, 2019, trial date for recently re-elected Hunter and his wife, indicted in August on charges they spent more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses.
Despite facing federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and falsification of records, Hunter captured 52 percent of the vote last month to defeat Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar and win a sixth term in the 50th Congressional District.
Gregory Vega, lead attorney for Duncan Hunter, told U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan that the defense has received “extensive discovery” from federal prosecutors, and that he would be ready for a motions hearing July 29.
(But Vega complained that the way the material originally was shared was hard to decipher. And it wasn’t until Nov. 21, he said, that info was provided in a format that his vendors “could put [it] on systems that we can access it more efficiently.”)
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen estimated the Hunters’ trial would last three weeks. The case would be heard by Whelan, who would be near 80 at that time.
Why would the East County congressman want to drag out the case?
“He simply can’t afford financially to give up his congressional paycheck until it becomes absolutely necessary,” said veteran political observer Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College, sharing one prevailing theory. “He loses the paycheck, he’s probably looking at bankruptcy.”
Luna doubted a market exists for currently indicted former congressmen — “though local AM talk radio has historically been a harbor for defeated/convicted conservative politicians in the past.”
Hunter might also be hoping for a signal from the White House that a presidential pardon could be heading his way, Luna said, adding: “The likelihood of which would probably diminish should he resign his office.”
A third possibility?
“He is taking a cruise on that most majestic river of all, Denial,” Luna said via email.
Asked for a response to Luna’s remarks, Hunter spokesman Michael Harrison told Times of San Diego: “Congressman Hunter has consistently requested that this legal process proceed and conclude as quickly as possible and he fully expects to be acquitted. Any commentary contrary to these facts is pure speculation.”
Meanwhile, said Harrison, a local chief of Hunter staff, “Congressman Hunter will continue working on the issues and priorities his constituents re-elected him to do.”
Following Monday morning’s 10-minute hearing, Hunter huddled with his legal team before heading to a waiting car, surrounded by reporters, camera crews and protesters, one of whom repeatedly yelled “You’re a scumbag, Duncan, you’re a scumbag,” as the congressman walked quickly away.
Trailing Hunter on his way to a silver car was William Johnson of Point Loma, who said he was calling him a disgrace. Speaking to reporters afterward, he also called on Hunter to resign.
“We need actual representation in District 50 — whether or not it’s a Democrat or a Republican, that’s besides the point,” he said. “We need somebody who will actually do his job in the office and not take advantage of the office.”
Johnson said he was a former campaign worker for Democrat Pierre “Pete” Beauregard, who dropped out of the race against Hunter in December.
Last May, Johnson sneaked into the back of a border press conference where Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced what became the zero-tolerance family separation policy.
Using a bullhorn (before being moved away), Johnson said: “Do you have a soul? You are evil!”
On Monday, Johnson wore the same white T-shirt as at the Sessions event, with the slogan: “Nazi-fascistas ¡no pasarán!” (The latter phrase — “They shall not pass” — historically used to express determination to defend a position against an enemy.)
Besides his public reason for being among 10 Hunter protesters, Johnson said he had a personal motivation.
”I was attacked on Dec. 9 at the border wall prototypes,” he said, recalling a Hunter appearance where an alt-right group called the Bordertown Patriots “attacked our counter-demonstration while we were walking to the protest area.” (Johnson was punched in the face.)
He said District Attorney Summer Stephan refused to press charges.
“The guy who attacked me, Nathan Wyrick, is now in the Air Force, and me and a group of folks are getting a dossier together about him to give to the Air Force and to give to the media,” Johnson said.
Johnson said a book has documented that Nathan’s father, Kristopher Wyrick, is an Alpine friend of Hunter, where the congressman comes into Wyrick’s motorsports store there.
“He’s apparently friends with people who are Nazis,” Johnson said of Kris Wyrick, formerly associated with the United Patriot National Front — accused of being a neo-Nazi group.
In court, the apparently estranged couple said nothing beyond “yes, sir” (Margaret Hunter) and “yes, your honor” (Hunter) when asked if the motion and trial dates were OK with them. Margaret, who had been her husband’s campaign manager, arrived at 9:13 a.m. more than 20 minutes after him.
Until she was called up for the case, Margaret Hunter sat with her lawyer two rows behind Hunter — in the spectator seating.
The congressman wore a dark jacket with light dress shirt and dark-red tie, while his blond wife, holding a black clutch purse a few feet behind him, wore a black V-necked blouse and gray pants. They didn’t speak to each other in court, but had a word or two in the hallway after.
The couple later would leave the courthouse 15 minutes apart via separate exits.
A 41-year-old former Marine first elected to Congress in 2008 in the 52nd District, Hunter succeeded his father, also named Duncan Hunter, who had represented the area in the House for nearly 30 years.
Redistricting after the 2010 census shifted him to the 50th District that includes much of the East County, as well as Fallbrook, San Marcos, Escondido and Valley Center, as well as a small part of Riverside County.
The 60-count indictment alleges Hunter and his wife, Margaret, took money from campaign coffers as if they were personal bank accounts and falsified Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports to cover their tracks.
The indictment details scores of instances beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, in which the Hunters are accused of illegally using campaign money to pay for such things as family vacations to Italy, Hawaii and Boise, Idaho, school tuition, dental work, theater tickets and smaller purchases, including fast food, tequila shots, golf outings and video games.
Duncan Hunter has said that his wife handled his finances when he was in the military and continued to do so when he got into Congress. He has said he hasn’t done anything wrong and is looking forward to clearing his name at trial.
If the congressman is convicted, there is no constitutional provision or House rule that explicitly requires him to lose his seat, even if he is sent to prison or unable to vote on behalf of his district.
Updated at 4:55 p.m. Dec. 3, 2018
— City News Service contributed to this report.