The August 2018 indictment against Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) and his wife reads like a caricature of corruption. Federal prosecutors allege they stole $250,000 in campaign funds to take their family to Italy, buy their children school lunches and fly a relative’s pet rabbit to Washington, among other things.
Hunter has maintained his innocence, arguing that the charges are politically motivated. But on Thursday, his wife, Margaret Hunter, revealed that she pleaded guilty in the case to one count of conspiring with her husband. She faces up to five years in prison and has agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors that could mean she has to testify against her husband.
For the latest on this case, we reached out to Morgan Cook, a San Diego Union-Tribune watchdog reporter who originally broke the story about Hunter’s alleged campaign finance misuse. Our conversation was conducted Friday over email.
The Fix: Let’s start at the beginning. Hunter and his wife were indicted in August. But you’ve been investigating this for several years. Tell me about your investigation and what you’ve found.
Cook: I started asking questions about Hunter’s campaign finances in April 2016, when we broke the news about a letter the Federal Election Commission sent to the campaign asking for more information about some $1,300 in expenditures for video games and a payment that appeared to be for tuition to his children’s private school.
After the first story ran, I went back through a few of his campaign’s older financial disclosures, to be sure the unusual charges were isolated. I found more expenditures to types of vendors I had never seen on campaign financial disclosures, such as an oral surgeon and a company that fixes and installs garage doors. The more I looked, the more questionable expenditures I found. Once I had gathered a bunch of the campaign’s financial data together, we started noticing spending patterns that are unusual for campaigns, such as frequent charges at gas stations, fast food restaurants and grocery stores. We kept asking questions and we weren’t getting many answers, so we kept digging.
In the course of our investigation, Hunter repaid his campaign about $60,000, though he attributed any misspending to innocent mistakes and suggested to the media that the questionable expenditures were made by his wife and campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, in California while he was in Washington.
He and his wife have maintained their innocence — until this week, when she pleaded guilty. Did she flip on Hunter? What does that mean for his case?
It appears Margaret Hunter has already cooperated with the prosecution, based on my reading of the plea agreement and what I have learned from legal experts so far. All of the legal experts I interviewed said her plea is probably bad news for Hunter’s case, because she pleaded to a charge of conspiracy that named Hunter as her co-conspirator. Further, her agreement stipulates that she will testify before any federal or state grand jury and at any trial proceedings deemed necessary by the prosecutors.
How does Hunter continue to reasonably argue that he did nothing wrong now that his wife has pleaded guilty? The indictment says they schemed together.
Hunter has taken the position that the prosecution is a politically motivated attack on him, and he has denied the allegations in the indictment. His statement [Thursday about his wife] said “it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”
To my knowledge, Margaret Hunter has never said publicly that she thinks the prosecution is a politically motivated attack on her husband. In her plea agreement, which she signed under penalty of perjury, she says nobody pressured her into entering her guilty plea and she is pleading guilty only because she is guilty.
What’s Hunter up to these days? He was stripped of his committee assignments in Congress. But he has not stayed on the down-low — he’s been on cable news defending President Trump’s controversial pardons by saying he and his military unit “killed probably hundreds of civilians.” What do you make of that?
I don’t know what to make of it. Some people have suggested to me that Hunter might be angling for a presidential pardon for himself in the event of a conviction at trial. Hunter and others have told me Hunter is simply trying to help someone he believes has been treated unfairly by the military justice system.
You’ve reported that this election cycle, he’s filed some weird campaign spending again — liquor stores and cigar lounges?
Yes. Hunter has long been a fan of cigar lounges, and he enjoys vaping. We have seen those vendors come up again and again on campaign finance disclosures. We have been able to gather very little information about those expenditures. We do know that there have been allegations that Hunter has a drinking problem (allegations which he has denied) and that he is under federal indictment for crimes stemming from personal use of campaign money. We know that the indictment alleges he misspent a lot of campaign money at bars. Regarding the more recent expenditures at a liquor store and cigar lounge, nobody has alleged that they are impermissible. They are somewhat unusual, though, and, given the circumstances, we think they warrant public scrutiny.
He was reelected two months after his indictment. Is there any sense that voters are going to elect him again, or are they sick of him?
I don’t live in the 50th District, so it’s hard for me to get a good sense of how voters are feeling about Hunter. Certainly, this was one of his closest races, which suggests he has lost some support. That said, there are also a lot of people there who have known Hunter and his family for a long time and trust them. While other voters might consider the appearance of impropriety created by the indictment reason enough to elect a new representative, the people who have known and trusted the Hunters for years might be more inclined to consider him innocent until proven guilty. I suspect his political future will become more clear as his criminal case develops.