Silver-haired Judge Thomas Whelan smiled to a packed federal courtroom Thursday as he took his chair in a case that could lead to the unseating of Rep. Duncan D. Hunter.

But Hunter’s wife, Margaret, wasn’t smiling as she pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to use campaign funds for a family vacation in November 2015 — and attested to $200,000 in fraudulent spending involving at least 30 illegal transactions.

Her 22-page plea agreement, which implicated the East County congressman in criminal offenses, included a promise to testify before any trial or post-trial proceedings “as deemed necessary by the government.”

Appearing in downtown San Diego federal court at a change-of-plea hearing, Margaret E. Hunter, 44, pleaded guilty to paying for a $14,600 Italian vacation with her husband’s campaign credit card (explained as a trip to a naval facility).

The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But she may get less time for helping prosecutors.

The plea deal says the government has determined Hunter’s cooperation merits a five-level downward departure … 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.”

Such a reduction could lead to Hunter serving no time in custody, according to veteran San Diego criminal defense attorney Jeremy Warren, who tweeted on the case.

“Even if she signed a traditional plea agreement (with no prosecutor advice on sentencing), and testified against her husband in a case like this, she almost certainly would get that kind of departure,” Warren told Times of San Diego. “Probably would not be facing time in jail. Or very minimal.”

Sentencing was set for 9 a.m. Sept. 16 — six days after the scheduled start of the six-term congressman’s trial.

22-page plea agreement between government and Margaret Hunter
22-page plea agreement between government and Margaret Hunter (PDF)

After the hearing, her attorney Thomas McNamara, surrounded by cameras and reporters outside, read a 73-word statement from her.

In entering her guilty plea, she said, “I have accepted full responsibility for my conduct. I am deeply remorseful, and I apologize. I am saddened for the hurt I have caused my family and others. I understand that there will be more consequences stemming from my actions, but as demonstrated this morning by entering in this plea, I’ve taken the first step to facing the consequences.”

McNamara declined to say whether Margaret Hunter would testify against her husband and brushed off other questions. He added: “Miss Hunter will not be speaking any further.”

Hunter spoke a dozen times in the hearing witnessed by about 50 people — at most saying “Yes, sir” to the judge who once oversaw the Betty Broderick double-murder case.

Whelan asked Hunter — standing between her attorneys McNamara and Logan Smith — whether she’d taken drugs or alcohol in the previous 24 hours (“No, sir”) and if anyone had threatened her to make the plea change (“No”). She also affirmed that she understood the punishment and agreed to the “factual basis” statements.

She said “yes, sir” to Whelan’s question: “Is that your signature?”

Hunter agreed in the deal to be interviewed by federal and state law enforcement agents and attorneys and to tell everything she knows about everyone involved in the case. She also agreed not to do any undercover work, tape record any conversations, or gather evidence “unless instructed by the agent assigned to Defendant.”

In an email statement less than an hour after the 9-minute hearing, the Alpine Republican said he didn’t yet have details of his wife’s case, “but it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”

He said his wife should be left alone.

“I am the congressman,” he said. “This is my campaign and any further attention on this issue should be directed solely to me.”

He further said: “The DOJ’s prosecutorial actions in this case were led by local U.S. Attorneys who attended Hillary Clinton fundraisers in violation of the Hatch Act. The fact remains that this entire matter should have been handled by the Federal Elections Commission. The DOJ purposely choosing to involve itself in the area where the FEC has primary jurisdiction reveals that their primary agenda was to inflict as much political damage as possible in hopes of picking up a congressional seat. It was politically motivated at the beginning, it remains politically motivated now.”

Hunter, 42, and his wife were accused in a 60-count indictment of taking money from campaign coffers as if they were personal bank accounts and falsifying Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports to cover their tracks. Both Hunters were slated to go to trial this fall on charges that include conspiracy, wire fraud and falsification of records.

In the plea deal she signed Tuesday, Hunter also initialed specific facts of the case.

Department of Justice press release on Margaret Hunter plea agreement. (PDF)

Between 2010 and at least 2016, Hunter acknowledged, she and her husband “agreed to knowingly and willfully convert campaign funds to personal use by using them to fulfill personal commitments, obligations, and expenses that would have existed irrespective of Hunter’s election campaign and duties as a federal officeholder, in amounts of $25,000 and more in a single calendar year.”

Throughout that period, the deal said, the Hunters spent substantially more than they earned.

“Among other things,” it said, “they overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period, resulting in approximately $37,761 in ‘overdraft’ and ‘insufficient funds’ bank fees. Their credit cards were frequently charged to the credit limit, often with five-figure balances, resulting in approximately $24,600 in finance charges, interest, and other fees related to late, over the limit, and returned payments.”

The Hunters were notified of debts and overdue payments from their children’s school, family dentist and other creditors as they lived paycheck to paycheck and “both recognized that they would be unable to pay for basic living expenses like gas and groceries without incurring additional overdraft fees.”

In a press release, the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office — led since January by Trump-nominated Robert S. Brewer Jr. — said both Hunters were aware that the other spent campaign funds on personal activities and purchases without having to inform one another.

“According to Ms. Hunter, this understanding allowed the Hunters to spend campaign funds on certain personal matters they wished to conceal from the other. For example, she hid from Duncan Hunter certain purchases she made with campaign funds for items like children’s school lunches.”

Margaret Hunter attorney Thomas McNamara leaves court complex, surrounded by media, after making a brief statement on behalf of his client.
Margaret Hunter attorney Thomas McNamara leaves court complex, surrounded by media, after making a brief statement on behalf of his client. Photo by Ken Stone

The original indictment details scores of instances beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, in which the Hunters — who have been married since 1998 and have three children — 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.

The indictment alleges that at one point, Hunter used $600 in campaign cash to fly his pet rabbit to a family vacation. (The plea deal names the rabbit, flown at least twice at $250 a trip: Eggburt.)

Though Margaret Hunter held no official role with the campaign and received no salary, Duncan Hunter requested that she be given a campaign credit card, according to the plea agreement.

The Hunters 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.

The agreement states that the Hunters would schedule events “that were supposedly campaign-related” near the time of their vacations in order to conceal that their family trips were facilitated with campaign funds.

Among these was a trip the Hunters took to Italy in November 2015, in which a one-day U.S. naval facility tour was scheduled “in an effort to justify the impermissible use of campaign funds to pay for this personal family travel,” the agreement states.

More than $10,000 in campaign funds were used to pay for the trip, according to prosecutors. Naval officials informed the Hunters that the tour could be provided on only one specific date during their trip, leading Hunter to tell his chief of staff, “tell the Navy to go (expletive) themselves,” according to the agreement.

Hunter’s re-election campaign issued a statement last year condemning the indictment as politically motivated. He later appeared to blame his wife in a TV interview, saying she was in charge of the campaign’s finances.

His campaign blasted the timing of the indictment — about two months before the Nov. 6 general election — saying it “appears to be an effort to derail Congressman Hunter’s re-election” bid.

Voters opted to keep him in office despite the allegations — turning back a strong challenge from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, also running in 2020.

(In a retweet response to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Campa-Najjar on Thursday wrote: “Confused? I’ll clarify: @Rep_Hunter is going to jail.”

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. Hunter was first elected to Congress in 2008, when he won the seat his father held for 14 terms.

In a 2010 financial disclosure, Hunter reported having no assets or income aside from his $174,000 annual congressional salary.

Asked in 2011 whether providing for his family on a congressional salary (and possibly military pension) alone has been difficult, Hunter replied via email: “San Diego and Washington, D.C., are two high-cost areas — on opposite ends of the country. I have three children and, as a father and husband, I have the same responsibilities when in Washington D.C. for the week as I do when I’m home and, whether it was during my time in the Marine Corps, or now as a member of Congress, I’m just grateful for their love and support — no matter what the job entails or what it provides.”

Updated at 3:45 p.m. June 13, 2019

City News Service contributed to this report.