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Rep. Duncan Hunter points to his wife and 'whatever she did' in campaign finance scandal

Rep. Duncan Hunter points to his wife and 'whatever she did' in campaign finance scandal
John Boehner left, administers the House oath to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., as his wife, Margaret, looks on Jan. 5, 2011. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, entered and exited the federal courthouse in San Diego separately this week, the first sign there might be trouble between the couple.

Hunter, the Republican congressman from Alpine, rushed to his black pickup as crowds chanted, “Shame, shame, shame.”

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His wife left through a different exit, her head down. Onlookers said the 43-year-old mother of three looked as if she was about to cry.

A 60-count indictment, filed in federal court in San Diego, accuses the couple of illegally using a quarter of a million dollars in campaign money to fund lavish lifestyles and filing false campaign finance records with the Federal Election Commission to cover it up.

They pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, falsification of records and aiding and abetting in the prohibited use of campaign contributions.

The two sat apart in the courtroom.

As he has several times during the investigation of his campaign spending, Hunter pointed to his wife's role in national television interviews this week.

“She was also the campaign manager, so whatever she did that'll be looked at too, I'm sure," Hunter told Fox News. "But I didn't do it. I didn't spend any money illegally.”

According to the indictment, the majority of illegal spending was done by both Hunters, with the largest chunk being the $116,000 paid to Margaret Hunter as her husband’s campaign manager or consultant. But of expenses attributed to Margaret or Duncan Hunter individually, hers totaled more than four times as much as his.

Data show she spent $92,506 on school tuition, makeup from Bloomingdale’s, restaurant meals that were unrelated to the campaign, and tickets to SeaWorld, among other things. The indictment says she spent more than $5,000 of campaign money on fast food. Meanwhile, Duncan Hunter is tied to about $20,000 in illegal expenses, including golf, groceries, dog food and a $302 “jacket for his personal use,” according to the indictment.

The congressman, 41, is well-known in California and on Capitol Hill, having held his House seat since 2008. His father, Duncan Lee Hunter, held the same seat for 28 years and had a short-lived bid for president in 2008.

But little is publicly known about Margaret Hunter.

According to published articles and voter registration records, her political career started early. In the fall of her senior year in high school, she volunteered to work in Rep. Duncan L. Hunter's local congressional office for a government class assignment, according to a 2004 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Margaret Hunter said she met the congressman’s son Duncan Duane Hunter on election night in 1992. He was a junior at Granite Hills High School at the time.

"It was one of those love-at-first-sight things," she said of their introduction.

She later attended San Diego State University, majoring in finance, and continued to work on the elder Hunter’s campaign. From 1994 to 2002, records show, Margaret Hunter was paid more than $95,000 in salary and $10,000 for assistance in fundraising during the 2002 election cycle.

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She married Duncan D. Hunter in 1998 and saw her husband through two deployments: He had enlisted in the Marines shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

In 2007, after announcing his plans to take his father’s seat in Congress, he was called back to active duty. Military rules prevented him from participating in campaign activities during his six-month deployment to Afghanistan, so Margaret Hunter picked up the slack.

In addition to taking care of the couple’s three children, she juggled a lot of appearances for her husband’s campaign. She created and ran her husband’s website and worked with her father-in-law to plan fundraising events until Hunter returned from Afghanistan. Soon Margaret Hunter was brought on staff, which the indictment alleges was part of a conspiracy to convert campaign funds for personal use.

She was paid $3,000 per month until April 2017.

According to the indictment, the campaign’s finances were not always sound when Margaret Hunter was the manager.

On or about Oct. 30, 2012, after an article in the San Diego Reader referenced Margaret Hunter’s salary and various expense reimbursements, Duncan Hunter relieved her of her formal duties with the campaign, the indictment says.

Although the campaign was in dire financial condition, Duncan Hunter continued to pay Margaret Hunter a salary from campaign funds and allowed her to keep her campaign credit card. Over a seven-year period, the family overdrew their personal bank account more than 1,100 times and records show campaign funds were used to pick up the slack, the indictment says.

In January 2010, Margaret Hunter spent more than $1,000 in campaign money in food, drinks and lodging at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino during a personal ski trip. On the same day, “the Hunter family bank account had a negative balance and incurred six separate insufficient funds fees (totaling $198),” the indictment says.

Duncan Hunter is paid a $174,000 annual salary as a congressman.

Officials say that, according to records, Margaret Hunter attempted to disguise questionable purchases when reporting them to campaign officials.

On 22 occasions, she spent money at Barnes & Noble on personal items for family and friends, totaling $2,600, records show, and it is alleged that she concealed one of the purchases as “booklets on San Diego.”

She spent $300 on personal items at Target and said the items were for “teacher/parent & supporter events,” the indictment says, adding that she bought $156 worth of groceries for the family and reported the expense as “misc. items” for school-related campaign events.

Prosecutors allege that her family benefited as well.

She spent $226 on an American Airlines ticket for her sister in April 2010, the indictment claims. Two years later, the campaign paid for Margaret’s sister and two other family members to attend a funeral in Tucson. The airfare cost $918.

According to the indictment, Margaret Hunter reported the expense as a “flight to Baltimore for NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] winter meeting.”

She paid for her mother’s travel to Warsaw, Poland, on two occasions, prosecutors allege. The most recent travel, totaling $995, included two tickets — one for her mother and one for her mother’s boyfriend. Court documents say Margaret Hunter “told the treasurer that they were related to campaign trips to New Orleans and Kentucky.”

The spending started to come to light in April 2016, when the Federal Election Commission and then the Union-Tribune began to question the expenses. Hunter began paying his campaign treasury back tens of thousands of dollars.

By November 2017, facing financial pressure, the family sold their Alpine home and moved in with Duncan Hunter’s father.

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Messages to Margaret Hunter, her attorney, several family members and former teachers and classmates went unanswered.The couple is set to appear in court again Sept. 4.

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