Newsletter: The long fall of Duncan Hunter

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter removes a sign that reads "lock him up," placed on the windshield of his car by a protester, as he leaves an arraignment Aug. 23, 2018, in San Diego.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter removes a sign that reads “lock him up,” placed on the windshield of his car by a protester, as he leaves an arraignment Aug. 23, 2018, in San Diego.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Dec. 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

There are certain square-jawed scions of political families who seem practically born to run for office, or at least be called “Mr. Congressman” by the kid carrying their golf clubs.

But few quite literally take over their father’s seat in Congress, as was the case when Duncan Hunter won his first House race in 2008 to succeed his father, also named Duncan Hunter.

For decades, it seemed nearly unimaginable that anyone not named Duncan Hunter might ever represent this swath of inland San Diego suburbs and portion of Riverside County now known as California’s 50th Congressional District. Even a criminal indictment didn’t seem capable of toppling the Hunter hold on one of the state’s most conservative districts — Hunter still won reelection in 2018, after being indicted with his wife on 60 felony counts that August. But nothing lasts forever, even dynastic strangleholds.


On Monday, in what even the famously evenhanded Associated Press termed “a stunning turn of events,” Hunter announced that he would be pleading guilty in the sweeping campaign finance investigation. The decision to change his plea comes after years of ardent denials and claims that he had been the target of a political “witch hunt.”

[Read the story: “Rep. Duncan Hunter says he will plead guilty in campaign finance scandal, leave Congress” in the Los Angeles Times]

On Monday, Hunter did not explicitly announce that he will be leaving Congress, which is often an outcome in any such plea agreement. But he insinuated as much in an interview with a San Diego TV station, telling KUSI that he was confident “that the transition will be a good one,” and stressed the importance of keeping his seat in the Republican Party.

I know that we live in an age of perma-political scandal and that it can sometimes be difficult to keep them all straight, so let me offer a quick refresher course on the alleged misdeeds of Congressman Hunter.

The August 2018 indictment accused Hunter and his wife of not just being corrupt, but wildly corrupt. Authorities alleged that the Hunters had not only spent more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, but that they had also gone to great lengths to conceal and disguise those expenses.

How, you might wonder, does one allegedly blow a quarter-million dollars of campaign funds on personal spending? The apparent answer is both lavish and quotidian, a laundry list of fancy vacations and mundane household expenses.


According to the 47-page indictment, the Hunters spent five figures in campaign funds on a Thanksgiving trip to Italy; they also spent five figures in campaign funds at Costco.

There were dental bills, school tuition, theater and sports tickets, clothes and many rounds of golf. In my personal favorite line item, $600 in airline fees were spent to fly their pet rabbit, Eggburt, across the country. Hunter’s spokesperson referred to this charge as “cabin rabbit transport fees.”

Before the indictment, Hunter was largely known in the public consciousness for two things: Being one of the first sitting congressmen to endorse President Trump’s presidential campaign back in early 2016, and a separate incident in which Hunter went mildly viral for hitting a vape while legislating.

His long, slow fall began in 2016, when the Federal Election Commission and the San Diego Union-Tribune questioned his use of campaign funds to pay for video games on 68 occasions. At the time, the congressman attributed the charges to a mistake made by his son.

A little less than a year after the indictment, in June 2019, Hunter’s wife, Margaret, entered a guilty plea that spelled potential problems for the six-term congressman’s defense. Less than two weeks later, prosecutors entered a new court filing, alleging that Hunter also used campaign money to fund a series of extramarital affairs with congressional staffers and lobbyists.

Hunter is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday morning to change his plea. He told KUSI that he hoped to spare his children from the difficult spectacle of a trial.


In terms of what’s next for the 50th Congressional District, Republicans are likely to maintain the seat. But Hunter’s guilty plea, which will seemingly take him off the 2020 ballot, “has wholly recast what already was a heated race,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

[Read the story: “Duncan Hunter’s guilty plea will widen an already open race for the 50th District” in the San Diego Union-Tribune]

Former Rep. Darrell Issa, former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio and state Sen. Brian Jones had all previously announced that they would challenge Hunter in the primary. Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democratic challenger whom Hunter defeated in 2018, is also running again.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


In a major change for the team tasked with addressing rising homelessness in the region, the leader of L.A.’s top homeless agency has announced that he is stepping down after a “long five years.” Homelessness has increased 33% during Peter Lynn’s tenure at the helm of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, precipitating a public reaction that has produced millions of dollars of new tax revenue but also growing frustration with the lack of visible results. Los Angeles Times


One of California’s most powerful labor unions is feuding with Gov. Gavin Newsom. Tensions between the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents plumbers, electricians, ironworkers and other construction workers, and the governor have been brewing for nearly a year. The conflict is fueled by what the union says were actions by the governor that ran counter to the interests of its members, including vetoing bills they supported. The governor’s fight with one of the most formidable factions of organized labor at the Capitol could threaten his agenda to address the state’s housing crisis and test the trades’ political muscle in Sacramento. Los Angeles Times


Toll lanes in the Sepulveda Pass? Metro is in the early stages of planning to allow solo drivers in the 405’s carpool lanes, for a price. Similar programs on portions of the 110 and 10 freeways charge drivers a per-mile toll that changes based on traffic conditions. Los Angeles Times

Pozole season is nigh. Here’s where to get the hominy and meat stew in L.A. L.A. Taco

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The Border Patrol threw away migrants’ belongings. A janitor secretly saved and photographed them. The images are now on display at the Skirball in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times


Newsom will travel to Iowa to campaign for Sen. Kamala Harris. (Insert your own joke about Newsom’s trip also laying the groundwork in Iowa for his eventual presidential campaign here.) Associated Press


Riot Games will pay out at least $10 million to settle a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit. The suit began in November 2018 when two women who had worked at the Los Angeles game studio sued over violations of the California Equal Pay act, alleging that they were routinely subject to sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Los Angeles Times


The establishment of an “Asian Gang Task Force” after a Fresno mass shooting has drawn criticism from the Hmong community in Fresno and beyond: “Some have said they applaud the dedication of more police officers, but think the name of the task force draws unsubstantiated parallels between the shooting and organized crime, reviving unfair stereotypes about the city’s Southeast Asian residents.” KQED


“In Search of Lost Time” in the BART station. This Belgian-turned-San Franciscan is on a quest read all of Proust — out loud, in French, in subway stations. Mission Local

Spanish-speaking Camp fire survivors face language and immigration barriers. Chico Enterprise-Record

The WeWork movie is coming. Universal and Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions have fast-tracked a film about the embattled start-up and its founder and former CEO. The Hollywood Reporter

Dozens of logs the length of cars mysteriously appeared on an Oakland street, preventing street sweeping and parking. Homeless advocates have criticized the logs, which they think were dumped there to deter overnight car camping. East Bay Times



Los Angeles: cloudy, 68. San Diego: cloudy, 66. San Francisco: rain, 61. San Jose: rain, 63. Sacramento: partly sunny, 62. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Karina F. Moreno:

“To be a middle-class tween girl in the Bay Area in the ‘80s was to be obsessed with the ESPRIT outlet. The trek from my house in Oakland to what was then an obscure part of San Francisco was a weekend field trip. The concrete warehouse in the middle of nowhere was full of perfectly organized and color-coded sections of clothes, radiating teenage cool. There were lavish displays of what I could be — sporty, studious, sassy, simple. Now the Warriors arena stands in the shadow of the old ESPRIT outlet — new possibilities, just with a steeper price.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.