One Hunter down, one to go in fraud scandal

Duncan Hunter with his wife Margaret, presumably swearing to something. Next stop: Federal Court./File

Margaret Hunter, a co-defendant in a federal fraud case with her husband Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Vapeville), changed her plea to guilty Thursday at a change of plea hearing in front of U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. Whelan, at the San Diego courthouse.

The couple misused about $250,000 in campaign donations for personal expenses, according to Hunter. In one incident, Rep. Hunter planned on buying a pair of “Hawaii shorts” for golf, but didn’t immediately have the money. Mrs. Hunter allegedly suggested a plan:

[Margaret Hunter] counseled [Duncan Hunter] to buy the shorts at a golf pro shop so that they could falsely describe the purchase later as ‘some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors, in one of the ore outrageous transgressions cited in the indictments.

Attorneys Tom McNamara and Logan Smith stepped outside court and read a short statement from their client.

“Earlier this morning I entered a guilty plea before the U.S. District Court. In doing so, I have fully accepted responsibility for my conduct. I am deeply remorseful and I apologize. I am saddened for the hurt I have caused my family and others. I understand there will be more consequences stemming from my actions. But as demonstrated this morning, with the entry of the plea, I’ve taken the first step toward facing those consequences.”

She faces up to five years in jail with a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

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The congressman memorably shifted responsibility for any alleged financial problems from himself to his wife.

“When I went away to Iraq in 2003, the first time, I gave her power of attorney,” he said last year. “She handled my finances throughout my entire military career and that continued on when I got into Congress. She was also the campaign manager, so whatever she did, that’ll be looked at, too, I’m sure, but I didn’t do it.”

The federal grand jury indictment depicts the couple as binge spenders who over eight years pocketed a steady stream of contributions intended for campaign purposes, while their household budget was awash in red ink. The couple pleaded not guilty at first.

An attorney representing the congressman, who won reelection despite facing the charges last year, said the guilty plea would not affect Duncan Hunter’s case. The congressman previously said that the matter was closed after repaying $60,000 to his campaign last year.

“We are aware of Mrs. Hunter scheduling a hearing to change her plea,” Gregory Vega told reporters. “At this time, that does not change anything regarding Congressman Hunter. There are still significant motions that need to be litigated, specifically the speech or debate clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Duncan Hunter was stripped of his committee assignments last year amid the charges, which he has alleged are politically motivated in nature. A House ethics probe into the matter was reportedly renewed in May and is ongoing.

At the time of the indictments, Rep. Hunter suggested that his wife was to blame for misuse of campaign funds telling reporters in San Diego that Margaret Hunter was “in charge” of the finances and claiming, “I didn’t do it.”

Hunter also claimed that he gave his wife power of attorney when he deployed as a U.S. Marine to Iraq in 2003. Hunter also said his wife has handled the couple’s finances during his five terms in office.

But, the following week, he flipped the script and demanded federal prosecutors leave his wife alone.

“My message to the U.S. attorney here is let’s get this in court,” Hunter told NBC 7 on August 28. “Leave my wife out of it, we know they’re not after her they’re after me. They want to flip the seat, so let’s go to court let’s have a trial and everybody will see everything.”

The Hunters hired separate defense attorneys and have consistently arrived separately for pretrial hearings at the downtown federal courthouse.

Margaret Hunter’s attorney did not immediately respond to a Law&Crime request for comment.

“We are aware of Mrs. Hunter scheduling a hearing to change her plea,” Rep. Hunter’s lawyer Gregory Vega told The San Diego Union Tribune. “At this time, that does not change anything regarding Congressman Hunter. There are still significant motions that need to be litigated, specifically the speech or debate clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Hunter was one of two Republican federal lawmakers to win re-election last November after being indicted on corruption charges. He is scheduled to go on trial in September and has said his wife handled his finances.

Hunter, an Iraq War veteran, was one of the first GOP lawmakers to support Trump before his election and recently has championed dismissal of a war crimes case against a decorated Navy SEAL, which the president has considered.

Lawyers for Hunter have called the allegations against their client a political witchhunt.

Attorney Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney defending the congressman, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Margaret Hunter’s decision to change her plea should have no impact on his client’s case.

The Associated Press could not immediately reach Vega for comment Wednesday. Margaret Hunter’s lawyers also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The couple have entered federal court in San Diego separately with their own attorneys to attend hearings and also have left separately.

Hunter represents the 50th District that covers largely inland areas of San Diego County and runs into Riverside County. His father served nearly three decades as the congressman in one of the few safely Republican congressional districts in California.

(More to follow as the story develops…)

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