Trailed by news cameras but no protesters, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter leaves federal court after agreeing to new trial date.
Trailed by news cameras, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter leaves federal court in October 2019. Photo by Ken Stone

Two months after resigning from Congress after a guilty plea in his corruption case, Duncan Hunter was sentenced Tuesday to 11 months in prison.

Judge Thomas Whelan in San Diego federal court gave the former six-term Republican three months less than the penalty recommended by federal prosecutors in the nearly 2-year-old case.

Hunter must surrender by May 29, Whelan said, despite a prosecution request that he be remanded to prison immediately.

Hunter’s legal team had recommended 11 months home confinement and 1,000 hours of community service. His father — the former Congressman Duncan Lee Hunter — and son, Duncan Lee Hunter II, made written appeals for leniency.

A spokesman for the ethics watchdog that helped jump-start the Hunter investigation told Times of San Diego: “The government asked for 14 months. Hunter asked for 0 months. He got 11 months.”

“The American people got justice,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Devin Burstein, a Hunter lawyer, said in a statement: “The Court saw this case for what it was. Far from the attack on democracy the government claimed, this was simply about misspending. There was no fraud, bribery, or theft of taxpayer money.”

Burstein said a felony sentence of less than a year is rare “and closer to a misdemeanor sentence.”

He added: “It reflects Congressman Hunter’s years of service and dedication to our country. Congressman Hunter is ready to put this behind him and to continue helping veterans in every way possible.”

The courtroom drama unfolded amid the Covid-19 crisis, with several parties — including the judge — older than 65, the age advised to stay home. Whelan turned 80 in February. Hunter attorney Paul Pfingst is in his late 60s. Hunter is 43.

Margaret Hunter, 44, the estranged wife of Hunter and mother of his three children, is set to be sentenced April 7 for her part in the case.

Whelan refused Hunter’s request to impose a sentence where Hunter would have served part or all of his sentence in home confinement, explaining that “the number of years and the amount of transactions” made such sentence inappropriate because this wasn’t a single act of theft but a crime committed repeatedly over almost a decade.

“Congressman Hunter violated the trust of his supporters by using hundreds of thousands of dollars they donated in good faith to his reelection campaign for personal expenditures,” said David Leshner, attorney for the United States.

Leshner praised prosecutors Phil Halpern, Emily Allen and Mark Conover as well as the FBI, saying: “These prosecutors conducted the investigation with the utmost professionalism, and they exemplify the Department of Justice’s commitment to upholding the rule of law. This case would not have been possible without their hard work, talent and dedication to the pursuit of justice.”

Omer Meisel, acting special agent in charge of the San Diego Division of the FBI, said: “Public corruption erodes public confidence and undermines the strength of our democracy. The FBI is committed to investigate public officials who abuse the public trust and use their office to commit illegal acts.”

The elder Hunter continued to defend his son, arguing that he was railroaded by the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office, reported Ed Lenderman of KUSI, where Hunter first signaled his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy. He was indicted for misspending $250,000 in campaign funds but was re-elected only months later in the 50th Congressional District.

“This was a political hit job,” said the 28-year member of Congress, again accusing two prosecutors of being prejudiced against his son for attending a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in 2015.

Whelan also sentenced Hunter to three years of supervised release after his confinement, said The Associated Press. He also was ordered to a drug and alcohol treatment program.

Prosecutors say the Hunters were “virtually penniless” and, amid dire financial straits, resorted to using campaign credit cards to support “a profligate lifestyle leading to continual debt and an ever-increasing need to find cash to pay bills,” according to a prosecutor’s sentencing memorandum.

Despite the family bank account not carrying a positive balance throughout any single month between 2009 and 2017, prosecutors say the family lived extravagantly, racking up thousands on expensive family trips and scores of other improper personal purchases, according to the memorandum.

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 repeatedly and publicly denied wrongdoing and accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office of a politically motivated prosecution.

Hunter pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court on Dec. 3, and in a brief statement to reporters, said “I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes and that was what today was all about.”

The congressman said in a television interview that he was taking the plea deal for the sake of his three children.

He resigned from Congress in January.

Amid the charges and public allegations, Hunter was re-elected in November 2018 with 51.7% of the vote, despite being indicted three months prior. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father.

John Gibbins, a San Diego Union-Tribune photographer, tweeted: “Can’t be too careful. Wiping down all my gear after a press conference.”

From Atlanta, a Twitter user labeling himself as a former David Letterman writer said: “Duncan Hunter shouldn’t think of it as a year in the slammer, but rather 11 months of free quarantine.:

Updated at 3:26 p.m. March 17, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.