By Ken Stone
Rep. Duncan Hunter has confirmed plans to plead guilty to criminal corruption Tuesday, telling KUSI: “It’s important not to have a public trial for three reasons, and those three reasons are my kids.”
The Alpine Republican said Monday he’ll plead guilty to a single count, telling KUSI’s Steve Bosh: “I think it’s important for people to know that I did make mistakes. I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money.”
The government alleged in a 60-count indictment that he and his wife, his former campaign manager, used $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for travel and personal expenses.
Hunter said he’ll leave office but didn’t specify when.
“My office is going to remain open,” said a clean-shaven Hunter a week after he appeared in court with a beard. “I’ve got a great staff. We’re going to handle people’s cases, and we’re going to pass it off to whoever takes this seat next. We’ll make sure that’s a seamless transition.”
Hunter’s office released what it called a transcript of the KUSI interview but it differed markedly in parts from the actual conversation.
For example, Hunter told Bosh: “My only hope is that the judge does not sentence my wife to jail. I think my kids need a mom in the home.”
The transcript said: “It is my hope that the court will not sentence my wife to jail. My daughters need a mom in the house.”
The transcript also reported that Hunter closed the interview with: “I have fought for this nation, overseas and at home. I’ve met and served with men who have paid a far higher price for their service, some the ultimate price. I will be OK, our district will be OK, and our nation will be OK. We are fighters and we never give up the challenge in front of us.”
Hunter said none of that in the interview posted by KUSI.
Hunter didn’t say who he’d like to succeed him, but wants to keep the 50th District seat of East and North County and part of Riverside County in GOP hands.
Michael Harrison, Hunter’s spokesman, wouldn’t comment on when Hunter would leave office, saying only: “No further information to provide today.”
Hunter stressed in the nearly 3-minute KUSI interview: “Not a single dime of taxpayer money was involved in this. The plea that I accepted was misuse of my own campaign funds of which I pled guilty to only one count.”
He also made an appeal on behalf of his estranged wife, Margaret, who court documents say is living in La Mesa.
“Whatever my time in custody is, I will take that hit,” he said. “My only hope is that the judge does not sentence my wife to jail. I think my kids need a mom in a home.
Hunter’s comments came shortly after a notice of change of hearing was filed by his attorney Devin Burstein in downtown federal court, with no document attached.
The notice said: “Change of Plea Hearing set for 12/3/2019 10:00 AM in Courtroom 3C before Judge Thomas J. Whelan. (Change in type of hearing only)”
Tuesday was to have been the day Whelan heard arguments on whether the Alpine Republican could keep his trial attorney — former District Attorney Paul Pfingst.
But the last time Whelan was notified of a change of plea hearing was in June, when Hunter’s wife changed her not guilty plea to guilty. She is set for sentencing on one count of criminal conspiracy on April 13.
The decision to plead guilty ends Hunter’s bid for re-election as he faces a number of well-known Republican challengers, including former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, former Rep. Darrell Issa and state Sen. Brian Jones.
Hunter also faces a challenge by Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who narrowly lost to him in 2018.
In a tweet, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said: “Duncan Hunter has shown a blatant disregard for the law & engaged in one of the most egregious spending scandals we’ve ever seen. We’re glad he’ll finally face consequences for his actions.”
Duncan Hunter has shown a blatant disregard for the law & engaged in one of the most egregious spending scandals we’ve ever seen. We’re glad he’ll finally face consequences for his actions. Now that he’ll be convicted for criminally abusing his office, he must resign immediately.
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) December 2, 2019
CREW, which filed complaints against Hunter in May 2016 amid press reports, called on Hunter to resign immediately.
Andy Orellana, Western press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, cited former New York Rep. Chris Collins of New York, another Republican resigning in the wake of federal charges.
Hunter’s admission of guilt “is a fitting reminder that at least two admitted criminals have called the Republican House Caucus in Washington home for years,” Orellana said. “While the Great California Crook-Off in CA-50 may now have one less corrupt Republican running, the Washington GOP will have to choose which one of the remaining crooks running for Congress they will want to line up behind – Issa or DeMaio.”
The first stories about Hunter’s questionable spending were in April 2016 by Morgan Cook of The San Diego Union-Tribune. She reported about more than 60 video game transactions totaling $1,302 being questioned by the Federal Election Commission.
At the time, Hunter said: “There was no taxpayer money involved, and I take full responsibility. That’s it. I’m going to pay everything back by tomorrow morning, with interest.”
In March 2017, he told a Ramona Town Hall that he had repaid his campaign account $60,000 and declared the matter “case closed.”
In his KUSI interview, Hunter said a trial that had been set to begin Jan. 22 “would be really tough for them. It’s hard enough being the kids of a public figure. I think it’s time for them to live life outside the spotlight.”
The trial also might have exposed evidence that Hunter carried on several extramarital affairs with Washington lobbyists and congressional staffers, which prosecutors called “romances.“
The happiest people in DC right now are Individuals 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, the lobbyists and staffers who had affairs with Hunter who will now avoid having their names disclosed at trial. https://t.co/d476qFG4oA
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) December 2, 2019
Prosecutors allege Hunter and his wife went on expensive family trips and made scores of other improper personal purchases over the course of six years. It was also alleged that Hunter used campaign funds to pursue extramarital affairs and repeatedly used campaign credit cards or sought reimbursement for expenses that included resort hotel rooms, airfare, a skiing trip and Uber rides to and from the homes of five women with whom he had “intimate relationships.”
Hunter had repeatedly maintained his innocence and accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office of a politically motivated prosecution.
He maintained that two prosecutors on the case attended a La Jolla campaign event for then- Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2015, then indicted him two months before the 2018 election due to his public endorsement of Donald Trump.
Hunter was re-elected last November with 51.7% of the vote in the 50th Congressional District, despite being indicted three months prior. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father, who held the congressional seat for 28 years.
Former San Diego Councilman Demaio, who is challenging Hunter for the seat, issued a statement Monday regarding the development.
“While this must have been a tough decision for him, Congressman Hunter’s decision to plead guilty is the right one for his family and his constituents and shows that no one should be above the law — especially members of Congress,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with the Hunter family as they go through this difficult process.”
Campa-Najjar, a Democrat, called it “a sad day for this district because no constituent hopes to see their congressman plead guilty to corruption. But today is also a day filled with opportunity because it’s the first time in years people, not political scandals will come first again. My thoughts are with Major Hunter and his family. I want to thank him for serving our country.”
Today is a sad day for this district, no constituent hopes to see their congressman plead guilty to corruption. But today is also a day filled with opportunity because it’s the first time in years people, not political scandals, will come first again.https://t.co/fp9FE2QTAn
— Ammar Campa-Najjar (@ACampaNajjar) December 3, 2019
Updated at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 2, 2019
— City News Service contributed to this report.
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