By Alberto Garcia
Disgraced former Congressman Duncan D. Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison on Tuesday for misusing campaign funds on personal expenses including vacations, video games for his son, private school tuition for his kids, and even an airline ticket for his pet rabbit.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. Whelan to sentence Hunter to 14 months in prison, and Hunter’s defense lawyers asked for home confinement.
Both Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were each charged in a 60-count indictment for misusing more than $250,000 in campaign contributions and purposely falsifying financial disclosure records to hide the unlawful personal expenses, sometimes listing them as contributions to wounded warriors.
Each pleaded guilty to a single count in separate plea agreements last year after Margaret Hunter retained separate lawyers and negotiated her own plea agreement. Margaret had served as the campaign manager for Hunter’s campaign committees.
The investigation of Hunter’s expenditures began in April 2016 after the watchdog group ‘Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’ filed an ethics complaint with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). In August 2016, the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended to the Ethics Committee that a full investigation be launched.
Hunter won re-election in November 2016 by a margin of 63.9% to 36.1% despite being under investigation.
Then, on August 21, 2018, the Hunters were indicted by a federal grand jury for wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations, and conspiracy.
The indictment not only alleged that Duncan Hunter misused campaign funds for personal uses, but also that he spent some of the campaign money on “personal relationships” with five women in Washington, DC, including three lobbyists, a congressional aide, and one of his own congressional staff members, and that the Hunters used the campaign funds to survive.
“Throughout the relevant period, the Hunters spent substantially more than they earned,” the indictment reads. “They overdrew their bank account more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period, resulting in approximately $37,761 in ‘overdraft’ and ‘insufficient funds’ bank fees.”
After the indictments, then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan stripped Hunter of all his Congressional committee assignments, including his most high-profile seat on the Armed Services Committee.
While awaiting trial, Hunter again ran for re-election in November 2018 and won with 51.7% of the vote, the smallest margin of victory since his father, Duncan Hunter, was first election to the same seat in 1980.
In June 2019, Margaret Hunter entered into a plea agreement to plead guilty to one count of corruption and acknowledged that she had conspired with Duncan Hunter to spend over $200,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses. He agreement required her to testify against her Congressman Hunter.
Finally, on December 3, 2019, Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to one count of misusing campaign funds.
After his conviction, Hunter announced he would not resign until after the holidays, apparently so he could receive one more paycheck in January. Hunter submitted his letter of resignation on January 7, 2020, to be effective on Jan. 13th.
The timing of the resignation was too late to hold a special election on the same ballot as California’s scheduled primary on March 3rd. California Governor Gavin Newsom decided not to call a separate special election so the seat has remained vacant until the winner of the current campaign for the seat is decided in November.
The candidates in the primary election included Hunter’s past Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as well as several high-profile Republicans, including former Congressman Darrell Issa, who left Congress in 2018 after serving 10 terms in a North County district; former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio; and California State Senator Brian W. Jones, among several others.
Campa-Najjar, received the most votes with 36.9% of the total, followed by Issa with 22.8%, so the two will face off in the November General Election.
Before running for office, Hunter served in the United States Marines, having joined in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Hunter saw combat duty in Iraq as a field artillery officer in the 1st Marine Division, and was later honorably discharged at the rank of Captain in 2005.
But in 2007, Hunter was recalled to active duty and deployed to Afghanistan, and was discharged from active duty again in 2008 and remained in the Marine Reserves. He was later promoted to Major during his time in the Reserves, which he retired from in 2012.
Hunter was first elected to Congress in 2008 after his father, then-Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, announced he would not seek re-election after having held the seat for 28 years. The senior Hunter was then seeking the Republican nomination for President.
Duncan D. Hunter, known by family and friends by his middle name, Duane, was elected in November 20th, and became the first combat veteran of either Iraq or Afghanistan to serve in the Congress, and the first member of Congress to have served in combat roles in both wars.
He was then re-elected in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018.
The 50th District includes the San Diego areas of Fallbrook, San Marcos, Valley Center, Ramona, Escondido, Santee, Lakeside, parts of El Cajon, and then all areas East to the Imperial County line, as well as small areas of southwestern Riverside County and most of the city of Temecula.
Margaret Hunter is expected to be sentenced on April 13. 2020.