Prosecutors argued in court filing that Hunter’s new attorney’s firm represents witnesses who testified before grand jury
A new court filing by prosecutors in the case against Rep. Duncan Hunter says the lawmaker was warned as early as 2010 that he and his wife were breaking the law by improperly spending campaign funds.
The filing says they bought a camera with which to take family vacation pictures and tried listing the expenditure as ink, paper and software for the office. They also spent campaign money on a trip to his daughter’s Irish dance competition in Phoenix because they couldn’t afford it, the filing states.
At one point, the filing said, a former treasurer threatened to quit if Hunter didn’t take the campaign credit card away from his wife.
The allegations are part of arguments prosecutors filed Monday with the U.S. District Court, asking the court to disqualify an attorney slated to join Hunter’s defense team before the lawmaker’s criminal trial in January.
Hunter (R-Alpine) notified the court last month that San Diego-based attorney Paul J. Pfingst would represent him in the criminal proceedings. Pfingst said he expected prosecutors to allege a conflict of interest because another attorney in Pfingst’s firm, John Rice, has represented witnesses in the criminal investigation who have appeared before the grand jury in the case.
The prosecutors’ motion said Pfingst’s firm, Higgs Fletcher & Mack, “is faced with an actual and unwaivable conflict of interest because it has represented since early 2017 — and continues to represent — multiple witnesses in this action, who have already provided adverse testimony leading to Hunter’s indictment and are expected to provide equally damaging adverse testimony at trial.”
Reached by phone Monday, Pfingst said in response to the filing, “I think Congressman Hunter should be allowed to pick his lawyer, rather than the prosecution picking his lawyer.
“I don’t know why they are trying so hard to keep me off the case,” Pfingst said. “I didn’t know I was so intimidating.”
Hunter is scheduled to begin trial Jan. 22 on a 60-count indictment accusing him and his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, of fraud, conspiracy and other crimes stemming from their alleged use of more than $250,000 in campaign money to pay for personal expenses such as video games, dental work, their children’s private school tuition, a family vacation to Italy and more.
Both pleaded not guilty when they were arraigned in August 2018. Margaret Hunter reached a deal with prosecutors and changed her plea in June to guilty to one count of conspiracy. She agreed to cooperate with the prosecution and testify against her husband.
Congressman Hunter continues to fight the charges as he runs for reelection, starting with a March 3 primary election.
According to the motion prosecutors filed Monday, Rice has represented since March 2017 three government witnesses: Bruce Young, Sheila Hardison and Joseph Browning.
All three had worked for the campaigns or the congressional office of Hunter’s father, former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, before joining the younger Hunter’s campaign, and all three were close friends with the Hunter family, prosecutors wrote in the filing.
Prosecutors argued that “each of the witnesses represented by Higgs describe facts that support the charges alleged in the indictment, and directly contradict Hunter’s protestations of innocence.”
For example, the government argued, Young testified before the grand jury that when he worked as Hunter’s campaign treasurer from 2007 until Feb. 1, 2013, he reported “various expenditures” on Federal Election Commission reports as legitimate campaign expenses, “when in fact those representations were false. Young relied on false information provided by both Margaret and Duncan Hunter to make these incorrect disclosures,” the filing said.
Prosecutors said Young testified that he told Hunter that Margaret was spending too much money on items that would raise a red flag with the election commission, and that Young threatened to leave his post with the campaign if Hunter did not take away his wife’s campaign credit card.
Young also testified that Hunter told him that a $399 charge to the campaign credit card at Best Buy was a legitimate campaign expense “consisting of the purchase of ‘ink, paper and software Microsoft office for mac [for the mac air],’” when financial records revealed the payment was for a Nikon CoolPix digital camera “used to photograph the Hunter family on a personal vacation to Idaho,” according to the government’s court filing.
Hardison, another witness represented by Rice, worked for Hunter’s father and for Hunter’s campaign as a fundraiser after the elder Hunter retired. In 2013 Margaret Hunter took over her duties.
Hardison testified before the grand jury that Hunter was aware as early as 2010 that “Margaret was using her campaign credit card for personal expenses and that it was a crime to do so,” and that Hunter had been told “often” that “campaign funds could not be for leisure outings at which the discussion occasionally focused on the campaign,” prosecutors wrote in the filing.
The third witness represented by Rice, Browning, had worked as a field representative on Hunter’s congressional staff.
Browning testified before the grand jury that, among other things, Hunter did not have enough personal funds to pay for basic necessities, that Hunter’s personal finances were so poor he could not afford to pay for his daughter’s dance lessons, that Hunter recognized he could not use campaign funds for social activities and that “Hunter traveled to Phoenix in January 2016 for his daughter’s Irish dance competition and visited Browning to ‘take a look at [his] retirement place’ — but did not discuss any campaign business.”
According to a footnote in the court filing, “At the time of the trip, Hunter reported to his chief of staff that he timed the trip so that he could hold a campaign ‘meeting with a (charity event) coordinator’ in Arizona.
“Campaign records demonstrate that Hunter used at least $632 in campaign funds to pay for this social visit to Phoenix,” the footnote said.
Prosecutors noted in the filing that Browning “is also aware of additional adverse sensitive activity that runs the risk of improperly tainting the jury pool before the trial begins and so will not be detailed herein.”
Defense attorneys have argued that these witnesses had not disclosed client confidences to Rice that would adversely affect Pfingst’s ability to zealously represent Hunter, and they disagreed that the witnesses’ testimony was adverse to Hunter’s legal position.
Prosecutors argued in the filing that the court must disqualify Pfingst because it has a duty to protect the integrity of the judicial process and the public confidence in fair and equitable proceedings — even if it means denying Hunter his choice of attorney.
“Hunter has repeatedly attacked the integrity of this judicial proceeding, in general, and the motivations of the Department of Justice, in particular,” the filing said. “Although this might be fair game whenever an elected official is indicted for corruption, it is critical that the public have no reason to call into question the legitimacy of the jury’s verdict — whether it be guilty or not guilty.”
Specifically, prosecutors argued, the court should prevent any appearance that Hunter is permitted to hire an attorney who offers unfair access to the private thoughts of witnesses the attorney will be called to cross-examine.
Hunter’s defense attorneys will be allowed to submit a brief in response to the government’s motion for disqualification before a hearing on the matter, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Nov. 25, at the federal courthouse in San Diego.
Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.