GOP Rep. Hunter Admits Misusing Campaign Money, Faces Prison

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter admitted that he illegally used campaign funds for personal expenses, becoming the second Republican House member in two months to confess to committing a crime in office.

Hunter, who represents San Diego, pleaded guilty in federal court to a single count of conspiracy. His plea came seven weeks before he was to go on trial on charges that he and his wife, Margaret, spent almost $250,000 in campaign money for expenses ranging from family vacations to school tuition and dental work.

A Marine combat veteran and a U.S. representative since 2009, Hunter -- among the first members of Congress to back Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016 -- now faces as long as five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when he’s sentenced March 17.

“I failed to account for and monitor my campaign funds,” Hunter, 42, told a throng of news media outside the courthouse. “I made a mistake and that’s what it’s all about.”

A prosecutor said there’s an “understanding” that Hunter will resign, ending a political dynasty that began with his father’s 28-year stint in Congress starting in 1980.

‘Sad Day’

“This is a very, very sad day for the city of San Diego,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern told reporters. “Instead of facing re-election, Hunter now faces resignation, disgrace and imprisonment.”

The deal with prosecutors marked an about-face for Hunter, who branded the case a politically motivated “witch hunt” after he was charged in August 2018 in a 60-count indictment. He deflected blame for the alleged campaign finance violations to his wife, arguing that she was his campaign manager and had been in charge of his finances during his military career.

Margaret Hunter later reached a deal with the government and agreed to cooperate in the case against her husband. The Justice Department then alleged that some of the funds misspent by Duncan Hunter went toward extramarital affairs with five women.

The examples of wrongdoing cited in Tuesday’s plea agreement included the Hunters’ use of $511 in campaign funds for their daughter’s birthday party at a hotel in Coronado, California, in 2011 and Duncan Hunter’s $409 in expenses at a French bistro in Washington to entertain friends in 2016.

Hunter backed Trump before it became clear Trump would be the Republican Party’s nominee. The first House member to endorse Trump, Republican Chris Collins of New York, pleaded guilty to insider-trading charges in October just hours after the four-term representative’s resignation from office took effect.

Trump criticized his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for allowing Collins and Hunter to be prosecuted.

While Hunter narrowly won re-election last year after he was indicted, he signaled in a TV news interview Monday that he’d resign, without saying so explicitly. A government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called on him to step down immediately.

Mike Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, said that the congressman will discuss his next steps with House Republican leaders upon returning to Capitol Hill today.

Under California law, the governor is required to schedule a special election within 140 days of a vacancy. David Wasserman, a House race analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote on Monday that Hunter’s guilty plea and his eventual departure from Congress improve the GOP’s chances of holding on to the solidly Republican district.

The leading Republican contender is Darrell Issa, who reportedly was planning to run against Hunter if he didn’t leave office. Issa, a former nine-term congressman, announced his retirement before the 2018 election in a neighboring district that he narrowly won two years earlier.

On the Democratic side, Hunter’s unsuccessful challenger from 2018, Ammar Campa-Najjar, issued a statement Monday positioning himself for another run, saying the district needs a “bipartisan local leader to restore integrity, the public trust and bring people together to deliver results.”

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