Home News Former Marine, Congressman Hunter sentenced to prison for misuse of funds

Former Marine, Congressman Hunter sentenced to prison for misuse of funds

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A judge sentenced former Rep. Duncan Hunter to 11 months in federal prison Tuesday, closing a case that began nearly four years ago with questions about stolen campaign funds which ended the once-promising career of the scion of an East County political family.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whelan gave Hunter until May 29 to report to a federal prison. The judge left open the possibility that date could change in light of evolving circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 11-month sentence is in the middle of the 8-to-14-month range called for by federal sentencing rules under terms of the plea bargain struck by Hunter and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Hunter’s lawyers had asked for a sentence that would not result in the former congressman going to prison, such as probation or home arrest. They brought up his military service as a Marine.

Whelan rejected that request.

Hunter, dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and tie, sat upright and listened impassively for nearly an hour as lawyers made their arguments to Whelan. He then stood up and briefly addressed the judge.

The Alpine lawmaker said he took full responsibility for the illegal use of the campaign funds and said it had been an honor to serve in the military and Congress.

Then he asked Whelan to “take sympathy” on his wife, Margaret. She has pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge as her husband and is scheduled to be sentenced April 7.

Hunter pleaded guilty in December to a felony conspiracy charge, one of 60 counts in an August 2018 indictment that also named his wife who was his former campaign manager.

The original indictment alleged he and his wife stole and misspent about $250,000 in campaign funds, but his guilty plea pertains to $150,000 of the funds.

Both Duncan, 43, and Margaret Hunter, 44, initially pleaded not guilty, then changed their pleas last year in separate agreements with prosecutors. Margaret Hunter’s plea deal required her to fully cooperate with the investigation into her husband, a fact that will likely affect her sentence.

Hunter resigned his seat representing the state’s 50th District in January during his sixth term as congressman for the area of East County. He succeeded his father, former Rep. Duncan Lee Hunter, who left the seat in 2008 after 14 terms in Congress.

Duncan Hunter did not speak to a throng of news media outside the federal courthouse after the hearing, slipping out a side door of the courthouse.

His father, former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, addressed the media and again pushed a line of argument that the case against his son was politically motivated by biased federal prosecutors.

It is an argument that has been rejected by Whelan twice, most recently Tuesday at the start of the hearing. The judge said he found no evidence of a conflict in how the case was handled.

Not above the lawAssistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern said outside the courthouse after the hearing that in committing a crime, denying it to the nation and his constituents and continuing to serve in office, Hunter had come to embody a dangerous notion that people who make the laws are above them.

“Today people can see that truth matters and facts matter,” Halpern said. “Because when individuals start believing that facts don’t matter, then those same people will believe the system of justice doesn’t matter. As today’s prosecution shows, that is not a fact.”

Speaking after Halpern, prosecutor Emily Allen said she thought Hunter’s 11-month prison sentence was “very fair,” given the facts and circumstances of the case.

During the hearing, lawyers for Hunter argued that his record of military service and public service as a congressman had to be weighed in his favor.

Paul Pfingst said Hunter’s multiple tours in Iraq as a Marine clearly took a toll on his marriage, contributing to its disintegration and his client’s psyche. What that meant exactly was not spelled out, but court documents had indicated Hunter at one time was a heavy drinker.

Moreover Pfingst argued that Hunter’s crime did not involve a direct corruption of his office — he did not accept bribes, for example — nor did it involve the theft of taxpayer money. And he took issue with government lawyers in their voluminous filings for the sentencing hearing characterizing Hunter as a a threat to democracy.

The substantial publicity over the scandal, including revelations of flying a family pet on airplanes using campaign money and trips with a succession of mistresses, obscured the positive work Hunter had done, Pfingst said.

“There is a lot of good that has been lost,” he told Whelan.

But Halpern countered that Hunter’s aggressive refutation of the charges over the years and his deflecting responsibility called for a serious sentence.

He read aloud several remarks Hunter had made that attacked prosecutors and called the Department of Justice corrupt and politically biased.

At one time Hunter blamed his wife for the excessive spending.

“This being said by someone who is guilty and who we all know is guilty,” Halpern scoffed.

He said Hunter betrayed his office and began using campaign contributions for personal use early as 2009, just months after he was elected.

In the end, Whelan acknowledged Hunter’s military service and settled on a mid-point for the sentence.

Rare for a felonyAfter the hearing another Hunter lawyer, Devin Burstein, noted that a sentence of less than one year is rare for the kind of felony charge Hunter pleaded to and that Whelan “saw this case for what it was.”

“Far from the attack on democracy the government claimed, this was simply about misspending,” he said in a statement.

“There was no fraud, bribery, or theft of taxpayer money. Less than a year is rare for a felony, and closer to a misdemeanor sentence.”

According to the indictment, the Hunters relied for years on campaign contributions to pay routine family expenses such as dental bills, home repairs and fast-food meals.

They also used the donations to pay for exotic vacations, private-school tuition, video games and plane tickets for Margaret’s mother to travel to and from Poland.

The Hunters used more than $500 in campaign funds to fly the family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt, across the country with them, Margaret Hunter admitted in her plea agreement.

Earlier this year, as the congressman continued to deny his guilt and prosecutors disclosed more of their evidence in public court filings, it became clear prosecutors believed Hunter had extramarital affairs with at least five women over many years and spent campaign funds on such things as travel, drinks and hotels.

Though never identified publicly, three of the women were noted to be lobbyists and two others were reported to be congressional staffers.

According to July court filings, Hunter used campaign funds to pay for a three-day weekend at Lake Tahoe with a woman who was not his wife. On another occasion, he used political donations to pay for a stay at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel in Washington, D.C., records show.

The indictment also said that Hunter and his wife were aware that their use of campaign donations was questionable. Prosecutors recently said in a court filing that Rep. Hunter was warned about the spending as early as 2010.

The couple’s joint bank account was overdrawn more than 1,100 times over the six-plus years of records examined by prosecutors, and the couple racked up some $36,000 in overdraft penalties — fees they paid using campaign funds, the indictment stated.

Text messages included in court files show that at one point Margaret advised her husband to use the campaign credit card to buy a pair of Hawaiian shorts he wanted but could not afford — and to tell his then-treasurer that the purchase was in order to assist “wounded warriors.”

Since investigations into his campaign spending started in mid-2016, Hunter has spent more than $800,000 on attorneys, including several for his criminal defense, according to his campaign filings.

The criminal charges from August 2018 came two-plus years after the Federal Election Commission and The San Diego Union-Tribune first questioned Hunter in April 2016 about expenditures his campaign had reported — a series of video-game purchases and a payment to his children’s private school.

Blamed his sonHunter initially blamed his son for grabbing the wrong credit card to pay the video-game charges, explaining that both his campaign and personal cards were blue.

Later, the congressman appeared to blame his wife for improper charges, pointing out that she was in charge of the family finances and she was receiving $3,000 a month to serve as his campaign manager.

The Union-Tribune continued to raise questions about Hunter’s campaign spending over the months that followed. By the 2016 general election, Hunter had repaid about $60,000 to his campaign for expenditures he said were mistaken or insufficiently documented.

Neither the denials nor the repayment quelled the investigation. The lawmaker dismissed follow-up stories by the Union-Tribune as “fake news” and said the newspaper was out to get him.

Federal prosecutors opened their criminal case in mid-2016, a probe that Hunter dismissed as being conducted by “deep state” partisans within the FBI and others in the U.S. government.

The investigation, and the cost of his legal defense, took its toll on Hunter and his family.

The congressman and his wife sold their Alpine home in 2017 to pay off family debts and moved into the nearby home of Hunter’s father.

All the while, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan before he succeeded his father in Congress in 2009 remained adamant that he did nothing wrong.

His lawyers argued in court as recently as this summer that the campaign spending, including resort stays and meals with girlfriends, legally constituted legislative acts — meaning they could not be prosecuted as crimes under the speech or debate clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The questions surrounding Hunter’s campaign spending were slow to erode his support among voters in the 50th District, a region his father — who is also named Duncan Hunter — held for 14 terms. The younger Hunter won reelection to the House of Representatives in 2016 and again in 2018, even as the scandal swirled around him.

But the East County congressman was stripped of his committee assignments after his indictment in 2018 and denied any new assignments under the Republican Party rules adopted for the 116th Congress.

With no committee assignments and a looming indictment, Rep. Hunter drew several well known challengers hoping to win his seat in the upcoming primary March 3 and general election in November 2020. After Hunter pleaded guilty in December, his name did not appear on the ballot for the March 3 primary.

Staff writer Jeff McDonald contributed to this report.

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