Attorneys for former Rep. Duncan Hunter said he should serve any sentence he receives next week in his home, rather than in a federal prison.
Hunter, who fought a 60-count indictment for 18 months before pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge late last year, should be given home confinement because he’s a first-time offender and a military veteran, his attorneys argued in a new court filing late Tuesday.
The nearly six-term Republican congressman, who with his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret, was accused in a sweeping 2018 indictment of misusing more than $250,000 in campaign contributions, faces sentencing before U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan on Tuesday.
Both Hunters pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count in plea agreements last year. Each faces up to five years in prison, though they are expected to receive much less time behind bars based on recommendations in their plea deals.
In a 58-page sentencing memorandum made public Wednesday, defense attorney Devin Burstein said Hunter had served his country with honor, courage and distinction in the Marine Corps and had owned up to his crimes by pleading guilty in December.
“Accordingly, Congressman Hunter respectfully requests a mid-range sentence of 11 months to be served in home detention as a condition of probation, along with 1,000 hours of community service,” the memo states.
Burstein and co-counsel Paul Pfingst opted not to dispute the charges spelled out in the indictment or the specific examples of Hunter’s illegal spending.
The indictment laid out the Hunters’ years-long practice of using political contributions to pay for routine family expenses, luxury vacations, weekend getaways for the congressman and his mistresses, and commercial flights for the family pet rabbit.
Burstein submitted just 13 pages in the defense’s filing late Tuesday, recounting Hunter’s military service, showcasing incidents in which Hunter came to the aid of constituents and others, and quoting portions of letters that supporters sent to the judge to consider before sentencing.
“While home detention is not jail, nor is it freedom,” the defense team wrote. “By all measures it is a significant punishment.”
That argument contrasts sharply with the view of federal prosecutors.
In their filing late Tuesday, which totaled more than 300 pages, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego said Hunter should face the maximum time spelled out in the sentencing range of eight to 14 months that both sides agreed to in the case.
“Hunter lied to the people about his guilt,” prosecutors argued. “Not once but countless times.”
Duncan and Margaret Hunter were indicted in August 2018 on 60 felony counts. The indictment said the campaign finance abuse started almost as soon as Duncan Hunter arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2009 to succeed his father, also named Duncan Hunter, in representing the 50th Congressional District of California.
Both Duncan and Margaret Hunter immediately denied all charges and pleaded not guilty when they were arraigned in 2018.
But as the case pushed forward, the couple stopped appearing together at the courthouse proceedings, and Margaret Hunter last June agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and to testify against her husband.
Duncan Hunter continued to insist he was innocent of all charges. He repeatedly accused the U.S. Department of Justice of singling him out in a witch hunt and a “deep state” conspiracy due to his early political support for President Trump.
Prosecutors recommend prison
Prosecutors cited those claims in their sentencing memo this week to bolster their argument that Hunter should spend 14 months in federal prison.
“Although it might be tempting for the court to simply dismiss Hunter’s wild accusations as the rantings of a desperate politician caught in his own web of lies, these dangerous claims should not be ignored or overlooked,” they wrote.
“Our very democracy is at risk when a criminal like Hunter weaponizes the tropes of fake news and conspiracy theories...” prosecutors wrote. “There should be severe consequences when an elected representative seeks to cover up corruption by hiding behind lies.”
The defense team’s sentencing memo included 13 letters of support from Hunter’s friends and family, offering testimony about the former congressman’s character.
Hunter’s father and predecessor in Congress, former Rep. Duncan Lee Hunter and his wife, Lynne, submitted a lengthy letter recounting their son’s bravery in choosing to volunteer for military service the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and touting his leadership and parenting skills.
The six-page correspondence concludes with the senior Hunter raising questions about whether his son was properly charged for dozens of the “overt acts” listed in the indictment because those acts involved campaign contributors identified in Federal Election Commission filings.
“To my knowledge, in the history of the U.S., there has never been a prosecution for a bona-fide FEC contributor being hosted to a meal, golf game, etc. which is paid for with campaign funds,” the father wrote.
Friends recommend mercy
Rep. Juan Vargas, a San Diego Democrat whose district is adjacent to Hunter’s, wrote to Whelan that while he disagreed with Hunter politically, they had been able to work together in Congress to improve the community — and his former colleague should be shown compassion. Vargas wrote his letter by hand on blank paper rather than his congressional letterhead.
“While his behavior is not excused by the afflictions he suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq, I personally believe that Mr. Hunter would not have committed his crimes and hurt his family in such a profound way if he was not battling the demons and substance abuse addiction that followed him home from his wartime deployments,” Vargas wrote.
“Mr. Hunter needs special counseling and treatment after fighting our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Vargas wrote later in the letter. “As a committed Christian and former Jesuit, I believe that showing Mr. Hunter mercy would better serve our society and Mr. Hunter and his family.”
Burstein, Hunter’s attorney, said, “I believe the reference is to a period in Congressman Hunter’s life when he acknowledges he was drinking too much. That is not an issue for him today.”
Burstein declined further comment.
In a letter his attorneys wrote to the Justice Department before he was indicted in August 2018, Hunter’s lawyer at the time, Gregory Vega, wrote that “there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility or alcohol dependence [and] once properly understood, the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, also implored the judge to show leniency. Kinzinger similarly avoided his government stationery in writing to Whelan.
“With Mr. Hunter, I wholeheartedly believe that he will be able to use his personal failings and experiences to help many in the future,” Kinzinger wrote.
Prosecutors do not appear so forgiving.
In their sentencing memo to the judge, they not only highlighted Hunter’s history of lying about his crimes, they reminded the court that the congressman repeatedly used his reelection fund to pay for drinking binges and other activity that impaired his ability to do his job.
They specifically described one occasion in 2016, when Hunter “went out partying” and used campaign funds to pay for a ride to his girlfriend’s apartment.
“The next morning (at 7:40 a.m.) he texted this woman that he showed up drunk to congressional basketball practice (which started at 7:00 a.m.) and was ‘still drinking’,” the prosecution memo said. “Hunter’s calendar indicated that he was scheduled to attend an 8 a.m. top-secret-level briefing of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that same morning.”
On other occasions, the former congressman falsified records to cover up his thefts — including reporting that he was helping charities, prosecutors said.
“Hunter also spent $57.27 in campaign funds at a Shell station in El Cajon, where he purchased gas, a car wash, candy and a pack of Marlboro Gold cigarettes,” they wrote. “Later in the day, Hunter’s debit card was used to spend $77.20 in campaign funds at Barnes & Noble (falsely reported as ‘kids books donated during a visit to Radys Children’s Hospital).”
In August 2011, Duncan and Margaret Hunter met friends at a hotel in Las Vegas for what the husband in the other couple described as “pure vacation,” with the foursome spending the weekend “going out to restaurants, lounging by the pool, sightseeing and taking in a show,” according to prosecutors.
“In order to cover for his personal vacation, Hunter scheduled a pretext 20 minute ‘tour’ of a charter school,” prosecutors said.
After pleading guilty in early December, Hunter waited six weeks to resign his 50th District seat.
Prosecutors said they are not recommending Hunter be fined because he has no ability to pay a monetary penalty. They say Hunter has been hired by a company called Worldwide Aeros Corp., a Los Angeles-area airship manufacturer.
Cook and McDonald write for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Union-Tribune staff writer Andrew Dyer contributed to this report.