SAN DIEGO — California Rep. Duncan Hunter said he plans to plead guilty Tuesday to misusing campaign funds and is prepared to go to jail. The move is a turn of events for the six-term Republican who had steadfastly denied wrongdoing and claimed he was the victim of a political witch hunt by federal prosecutors.
A change of plea hearing has been scheduled for Hunter and a notice was posted on the U.S. District Court docket Monday morning. What had been set to be a motions hearing will now be a change of plea hearing and is slated for 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Hunter had pleaded not guilty, but in an interview Monday said he will change his plea at a federal court hearing Tuesday in San Diego. He said his motivation is to protect his three children from going through a trial, which was set to begin Jan. 22.
"As you approach the trial, you're approaching the beginning of several weeks of intense testimony, spotlight, and pressure," said Chuck La Bella, a former U.S. Attorney.
Hunter has been involved in an ongoing campaign fraud case, in which he's accused of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use. Hunter was indicted along with his wife on 60 criminal counts, including wire fraud, conspiracy, and falsification of records.
Margaret Hunter, 44, who was also charged in the case has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and awaits sentencing. She faces up to five years in federal custody and a fine of up to $250,000 when she is sentenced in April. The plea deal called for her to testify against her husband.
La Bella says the government put serious consideration into an agreement with Duncan Hunter.
"I don't think the government is going to accept anything less than a felony," said La Bella. "I assume it's not going to be a misdemeanor plea."
"The fact that his wife cooperated had an impact on the case," La Bella said. "It made his case that much more difficult."
In exchange for her offer to testify, Margaret Hunter may not have to serve time in prison, but the same cannot be said for her husband.
"One of the things that's critical, is that the children have a parent who is not incarcerated - that's possibly part of his motivation," said La Bella.
Duncan Hunter may also have to pay a fine as he is accused of misusing a quarter-million dollars.
Hunter, who was re-elected last year with 51.7% of the vote in the 50th Congressional District and has been actively campaigning for a seventh term next year despite being under indictment, indicated he will leave office but didn’t say when. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father, who held the congressional seat for 28 years.
The combat Marine veteran and an early supporter of President Donald Trump said he will plead guilty to one count of misuse of campaign funds. Federal prosecutors alleged he and his wife spent more than $250,000 in campaign money for golf outings, plane tickets and a family vacation to Italy, as well as household items from places like Costco.
Prosecutors also revealed salacious details about the congressman's lifestyle, saying some money was used by Hunter to further romantic relationships with lobbyists and congressional aides.
"I fully expect the government would hope there's a deterrent effect, not only federal, but state and local as well, to get the message of 'we're looking at how you're spending your money, so spend wisely and properly,'" La Bella said.
Hunter said he will accept whatever sentence the judge gives, including jail time.
Hunter’s plea sets up the prospects for a second special House election in California next year. Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, a rising Democratic star, announced her resignation from a Los Angeles-area district in October after explicit photos of her were posted online. Among those seeking the seat is Steve Knight, the Republican incumbent Hill beat in 2018.
Hunter represents the 50th Congressional District, which covers East County San Diego and a small part of southern Riverside County. It is the most Republican district in Southern California, an area now nearly devoid of GOP representation in Congress.
Last year Hunter narrowly survived a challenge from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a political unknown making his first run for office. The 30-year-old Campa-Najjar is running again and his Republican opponents include former U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and radio personality Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman.
All three applauded Hunter’s decision to plead guilty.
Campa-Najjar, a Democrat, called it "a sad day for this district because no constituent hopes to see their congressman plead guilty to corruption. But today is also a day filled with opportunity because it's the first time in years people, not political scandals will come first again. My thoughts are with Major Hunter and his family. I want to thank him for serving our country."
DeMaio also issued a statement Monday regarding the development.
"While this must have been a tough decision for him, Congressman Hunter's decision to plead guilty is the right one for his family and his constituents and shows that no one should be above the law - especially members of Congress," he said. "My thoughts and prayers are with the Hunter family as they go through this difficult process."
Until now, Hunter had resisted calls to resign, calling the charges a politically motivated attempt to drive him from office in a state where Democrats are in the majority. Following his indictment in August 2018, he said the charges were brought by local prosecutors who attended a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, who ran against Trump in 2016.
After his wife agreed to a plea deal, Hunter said “it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”
It's unclear how the expected change of plea will affect Hunter's bid for re-election in the November 2020 election.