By Ken Stone
In early November 2015, Margaret Hunter and her congressman husband, Duncan, were in the midst of a “marital spat,” say federal prosecutors. But she saw an upcoming Italian vacation as a salve.
“I’m starting to wonder what I’m getting out of all this,” Rep. Hunter told his wife in an email revealed by the government Saturday.
“A family trip,” replied Margaret, his wife of 17 years at the time. “I love you and I will make this weekend up to you. I know it really sucked and I was out of it in some way.”
What sucked? That’s not clear.
Also not certain is whether Margaret Hunter knew at the time that Hunter was engaged in what prosecutors call “intimate personal activities” with a women the government calls Individual 17 — “a lobbyist Hunter knew both professionally and through the D.C. social scene.”
Or that when she began planning the trip in April, Hunter had already begun “a romantic relationship” with a worker in his congressional office, labeled “Individual 16.”
But the government says the purpose of the trip was obvious.
“From the start, this was intended as a family vacation,” prosecutors say. “When an associate of Hunter’s asked in September why he couldn’t go to Miami in November, Hunter explained, ‘Going to Italy over [T]hanksgiving with the family.'”
In a legal response to Hunter’s lawyers filed Friday, the San Diego-based U.S. attorneys say the Constitution’s “Speech and Debate” clause doesn’t protect Hunter from prosecution.
Hunter says the Italy trip was a “legislative activity” — a planned visit to a U.S. naval base in Naples (even if the visit didn’t happen).
The government says: “The Hunters began planning the Italy trip in April 2015, but did not attempt to schedule any visit to a military base until early November, barely two weeks before their departure.”
By that time, prosecutors say in a 24-page filing ahead of a federal court hearing Monday, the Hunters “had belatedly realized that their lavish family vacation to Italy would be difficult to justify as a legitimate campaign expense, and scrambled to generate a pretextual ‘legislative’ purpose for what was in reality purely recreational travel.”
With airline reservations as evidence, the government says the Hunters flew to Italy on Nov. 21, 2015, and stayed through Nov. 28.
“While there, they charged thousands of dollars in campaign funds for hotels, restaurants, train tickets, museum fees and shopping. … They visited Positano, Pompeii, Florence, Naples and Rome. … They posted on social media to show their friends and family the highlights of their trip.”
In an email, Margaret Hunter described the trip as “amazing. Truly our best family trip so far. Like that saying ‘if traveling was free you’d never see me again’!”
In her guilty plea of June 13, Margaret Hunter says the couple spent more than $14,000 in campaign funds on the trip. (Hunter has said he paid that money back as part of a $60,000 reimbursal of his campaign fund.)
“As if to prove the point that the base visit idea was simply an artifice, Hunter never even took the trouble to make the visit happen,” prosecutors say. “On November 25, when the family was in the midst of their vacation, Hunter’s chief of staff [Joe Kasper at the time] texted him to follow up on Margaret’s November 2 email.”
Kasper told Hunter: “Navy can only do 25 November,” according to a prosecution exhibit.
Hunter texted back, “Rgr. I’ll talk to [M]ag,” meaning Margaret.
“But in the end,” the government says, “it appears the Hunter family was having too much fun in Italy to rearrange their itinerary around a base visit, even for the purpose of generating a pretext for their embezzlement of $14,000 in campaign funds.”
Then in a text shown Saturday for the first time, Hunter 40 minutes later wrote Kasper: “tell the navy to go f— themselves.”
According to Hunter’s legal team led by Gregory A. Vega, the government’s August 2018 indictment violated the “Speech and Debate” clause.
Prosecutors respond that the base tour, even if had come off, would not be a “legislative act” protected by that privilege.
“Hunter planned to take his wife and kids on a tour of a navy base during their family vacation,” prosecutors said. “He was not engaged in the work of any committee, nor was he finding facts relating to any House inquiry. At best, he might claim he was conducting his own independent, ‘individual’ investigation. But ‘the Supreme Court has never recognized investigations by an individual Member to be protected.’”
Government exhibits include photos of the Hunters in various tourist venues, along with a family photo with the faces of their three children blacked out.
Also rejected by prosecutors is Hunter’s request to move the trial on account of prejudicial pretrial publicity.
“Where disgraced CEOs, terrorists, Watergate conspirators and drug lords have failed, Hunter offers only a half-dozen news articles and editorials, and backs up his request with completely irrelevant presidential election results,” prosecutors said.
“Worse still, he demands the Court transfer the case to a nonadjacent district for no other reason than that then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump fared better there than in this district in the 2016 presidential election.”
To support his argument that he can’t receive a fair trial in San Diego, Hunter cited six articles and editorials published by The San Diego Union-Tribune and a single political cartoon.
“Hunter provides no evidence of how pervasively these seven publications have been consumed or even noticed by the jury pool, nor does he produce any evidence of the [effect] these publications have had on potential jurors’ sentiments towards him,” prosecutors said.
Hunter failed to demonstrate a “barrage” of negative or inflammatory media coverage or a “wave of public passion” against him, the government said, calling his motion “long on superlatives and short on supporting facts.”
In fact, noted the government, a change of venue even was denied Robert Alton Harris, executed in 1992 for the 1978 murders of two San Diego teens — despite 136 media references entered into the record.
“Courts routinely reject motions to transfer venue where defendants introduce dozens of examples of adverse local media coverage,” the prosecutors said. “Hunter’s evidence can be tallied on one hand.”
In an aside, the government also drops a floppy-eared bomb.
An exhibit released Saturday shows how Hunter aide Kasper answered accusations of the Office of Congressional Ethics in the wake of a watchdog group’s critical report and stories in the Union-Tribune.
“With the OCE Report now being made public today, the office of Rep. Hunter is responding to expose its errors, mischaracterizations and exaggerations,” says Kasper’s undated four-page critique.
One error regarded the cross-country-flown rabbit recently identified as Eggburt.
“Any suggestion that a fee was knowingly paid for with campaign funds for the pet rabbit of Hunter’s children — which couldn’t be left alone for extended periods of time — is not accurate,” Kasper wrote. “OCE is right to state that travel was facilitated on reward miles, which are permitted for use.”
(The government says in a footnote that the rabbit’s airfare fees in fact were paid with campaign funds.)
But Eggburt wasn’t the only Hunter cottontail.
“This is a tale of two rabbits,” Kasper wrote. “One rabbit was kept in Hunter’s official office and another rabbit was owned by Hunter’s children. OCE is absolutely wrong to connect cabin fees associated for the transport of the rabbit paid for with reward miles to a rabbit that was kept in the office by Hunter’s former chief of staff.”
The fluffy animal was under the care of Hunter’s then-chief of staff [apparently Vicki Middleton], “who paid expenses personally,” the Hunter aide wrote.
That rabbit’s name?
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