California Rep. Duncan Hunter To Plead Guilty To Campaign Finance Charge

Dec 3, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In federal court in San Diego tomorrow, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter is expected to plead guilty to one count of misusing campaign funds. He had been facing 60 criminal counts in a case he called a political witch hunt. NPR's Ina Jaffe joins me now from NPR West.

Hey, Ina.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So he'd been fighting this every step of the way, right? He'd initially denied all the charges. Do we know what prompted this change of plea and change of heart?

JAFFE: Well, clearly, one reason is that he was able to, apparently, make a deal with the prosecutors. And also, in the only interview he's done about this, he told San Diego TV station KUSI that he had some personal reasons too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUNCAN HUNTER: I think it's important not to have a public trial for three reasons, and those three reasons are my kids. I think it's a - it'd be really tough for them. It's hard enough being the kids of a public figure. I think it's time for them to live life outside the spotlight.

KELLY: So if this unfolds as we're now anticipating, as we mentioned, he goes from 60 criminal counts to probably facing one. Remind us, just what is he alleged to have done here?

JAFFE: Well, Hunter and his wife Margaret were accused of using around a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds to support their personal lifestyle. They used the money for everything from dental bills to home repair to school tuition, as well as for luxury travel and everyone's favorite - spending more than $500 to fly their pet rabbit across the country.

KELLY: Their pet rabbit. OK. Go on.

JAFFE: Named Eggburt, yes.

KELLY: Eggburt - an important detail; go on.

JAFFE: So prosecutors say the reason for some of this is that the Hunters were, basically, broke. Their personal checking account was overdrawn more than 1,100 times. They also paid more than $20,000 in overdraft fees with campaign funds. Prosecutors also allege that Duncan Hunter used his campaign account to pay for at least five extramarital affairs. And last June, Margaret Hunter decided to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and testify against her husband, and that may be another reason that made it hard for him to carry on his fight.

KELLY: Duncan Hunter is - he's part of a political dynasty, as I recall. He took over the seat from his dad.

JAFFE: He did. He did - in 2008. His dad's name is also Duncan Hunter. Hence - so one Duncan Hunter or another has represented this part of inland San Diego since 1980. He is also a former Marine infantry officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he was one of President Trump's first allies in Congress. And he's lobbied the president to intervene in the case of disgraced Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.

KELLY: However this plays out in court tomorrow and in the days to come, that - he's already faced some significant political consequences, right?

JAFFE: Oh, he has. He was stripped of all of his congressional committee assignments. And he had an unusually tough fight for reelection. Despite the Republican registration advantage in his district, he narrowly beat a Democratic newcomer. And it was a notoriously ugly campaign.

KELLY: So if he is forced to resign from his seat, what will happen to it? What happens next?

JAFFE: Well, there are several Republicans waiting in line to run in his stead. Some of them are locally well-known. The best known nationally would be former Congressman Darrell Issa, who used to represent an Orange County district not all that far away. He decided not to run in his district again because, I think, he didn't think he would get reelected. And he has thrown his hat in the ring for Hunter's seat. It's unclear, presuming Hunter resigns, if there will need to be a special election or if it will just wait until 2020.

KELLY: NPR's Ina Jaffe giving us the latest news there on Republican Congressman, for now, Duncan Hunter.

Ina Jaffe, thank you.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.