U-T reporter Morgan Cook hailed by Hunter prosecutor

Morgan Cook was standing in line Tuesday morning outside Judge Thomas Whelan’s courtroom when she was pointed out as the reporter who first looked into Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s spending.

Cook, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, modestly acknowledged her role.

She shared a story — about how she phoned Disneyland to inquire about a Hunter purchase in Tomorrowland.

Morgan Cook of The San Diego Union-Tribune said it was news to her that stories she began writing in April 2016 led to prosecution of Rep. Duncan D. Hunter. Photo by Ken Stone

In official filings, the East County congressman reported that his campaign had spent $229 at the Star Trader gift shop for “food/beverages.”

But the only edibles there, Cook learned, were Pez dispenser candies and “Star Wars”-themed Rice Krispy treats.

Thanks in part to simple calls and dogged reviews of Federal Election Commission records, Cook witnessed the result of her stories Tuesday: The six-term Republican pleading guilty to corruption charges that will end his political career and likely put him in prison.

Afterward, a government prosecutor broke some news about Cook.

Her coverage — beginning with a 384-word story in April 2016 about the Hunter campaign paying for 68 video games — triggered the FBI probe leading to Hunter’s August 2018 indictment.

“The fact is … the case began when Morgan Cook published an article in the U-T,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern told a gaggle of reporters and camera crews outside the downtown federal courthouse.

He said he discussed the story with fellow prosecutors Emily Allen and Mark Conover and went to the FBI.

“We said: ‘Look at this — is there a case?’ And after that, we consulted with people in [the Justice Department], who in this administration made the decision to indict Rep. Hunter.”

Halpern stressed two points. First, that the genesis of the Hunter investigation was apolitical — not a “witch hunt” as Hunter and surrogates said.

And second: “Today, in many ways, is a triumph for the press and shows the importance of having a free press that not only the people can rely on but the Department of Justice can turn to for guidance.”

Minutes later, a stunned Cook was asked about the unsolicited shout-out.

“I think that’s what I heard,” she said, holding her thin reporter’s notebook, “but that doesn’t sound like something I would be hearing.”

Did she know at any point she had been the impetus for the federal investigation?

“No,” she said.

According to U-T Digital Editor Ricky Young, one of Cook’s editors, a tip came in about an “interesting FEC inquiry about Hunter’s campaign filings.”

Young said Cook obtained the FEC inquiry letter, launching her research.

“We quickly began to see that the video game charges from the original tip were not an isolated incident, and went from there,” Young said.

Previously the paper’s Watchdog editor, Young said Cook always had a particular interest in campaign finance stories, so she didn’t need much direction once pointed in that direction.

“She never assumed anything, though, and worked closely with experts in the field to get up to speed,” he said. “Then she spent a lot of time with regulations and legal codes and came to understand the issues better than some of the experts and sources she was dealing with.”

Newsroom help came from senior investigative reporter Jeff McDonald, who served as her mentor and teamed with her on many key stories, Young said Tuesday.

“Our data team, including Lauryn Schroeder and Daniel Wheaton, did a lot of serious number crunching and helped readers visualize the magnitude of the misspending,” he said.

Young says U-T reporters have been singled out for praise by prosecutors in the past.

Then-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam said her office’s investigation of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham began after the U-T’s initial story raised questions about the 2003 sale of his Del Mar-area home.

(He resigned from Congress in 2005 after pleading guilty to bribery, fraud and tax evasion. A team of U-T and Copley News Service reporters shared a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in April 2006.)

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in 2013 credited the U-T Watchdog team when rolling out its pay-to-play prosecutions in the South Bay, he said.

“And state lawmakers called out our coverage of problems in assisted living centers when proposing and passing legislation in response,” he said. “But I can’t remember someone calling out a reporter by name in an instance like this. It really speaks to her doggedness in the face of some serious adversity.”

Young said Cook’s reporting stirred name-calling but no threats.

Tuesday night, Brian Stelter of CNN featured Cook in his media-centric newsletter and a separate news story.

He cited a podcast by Cook colleague McDonald in which the U-T reporter says: “I think I’m most gratified that Morgan has been vindicated. The amount of pushback that she got, personally, from this member of Congress was inexcusable. The denials and the fake news arguments that he put forward were nothing short of despicable. And I think it’s nice that the system does work.”

At the courthouse, Halpern’s praise of Cook stirred handshakes and hugs from fellow journalists.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat making a second shot at Hunter’s District 50 seat, greeted Cook and said: “This is the one who pulled it all off, who actually broke the news and showed the power of the free press. So thank you.”

Halpern approached Cook and whispered in her ear. She wouldn’t repeat it.

“He’s a very kind person,” she said. “I don’t really know him well, but that was nice.”

The attention made Cook look a bit uncomfortable.

“Without the power of the [government] subpoena, we would be nowhere,” she said. “So not all me, but thank you.”

Section of Tuesday night’s CNN “Reliable Sources” newsletter devoted to Morgan Cook and her Duncan Hunter scoops.

Updated at 11:51 p.m. Dec. 3, 2019