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Opinion

Editorial: Duncan Hunter has overstayed his welcome long enough. He should resign immediately

Duncan Hunter Jr. motions hearing
Duncan Hunter in San Diego, Calif., on Monday. July 1. He has been indicted for alleged misuse of campaign funds.
(John Gibbins / TNS)

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) should resign from Congress so he can spend more time with his lawyers. He’s really going to need it.

The six-term congressman and his wife Margaret were co-indicted in August on 60 criminal counts alleging that they misused $250,000 in campaign cash over six years, and then tried to hide that fact from federal election officials.

Both pleaded not guilty to the charges, but last month Margaret Hunter, who managed her husband’s campaign and handled the family’s finances, suddenly changed her story. She pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring with her husband to spend campaign funds illegally, a move that could land her in jail for up to five years. She is expected to testify against her husband when he goes on trial in September.

If it seems disloyal to snitch on your spouse in court, consider how she might feel about the allegations that Hunter tapped his campaign funds to help finance a string of extramarital affairs involving five women — two congressional staffers and three lobbyists.

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Hunter’s in a tough place. Between preparing a defense against the mountain of evidence amassed by prosecutors and sitting in a courtroom while his family’s dirty laundry is aired, he can’t possibly be an effective representative for his district. He should resign immediately and clear the way for a special election.

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If Hunter were an honorable man, he would have taken a leave of absence last year after being indicted and suspended his re-election campaign. Not as an admission of guilt, but as an acknowledgement that such serious criminal charges are a distraction from the important job of serving in the House of Representatives. As it is, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appropriately stripped Hunter of his committee assignments, which is where the real work of Congress gets done.

Nevertheless, Hunter defiantly remained in office, brushing off the charges as politically motivated “dirty tricks” — a ridiculous assertion that borrows from President Trump’s irresponsible attacks on the integrity of federal investigators. The questions about improper use of campaign funds were raised more than three years ago by nonpartisan regulators at the Federal Elections Commission, who flagged the purchase of video games, among other expenditures. Hunter blamed the problem on his son, who he said used the wrong credit card. Hunter paid about $60,000 back to his campaign fund, but a broader investigation had already begun.

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Though Hunter managed to eke out a win in November against a neophyte progressive Democrat in the heavily Republican district he represents, we wonder if voters would still support him today in light of his wife’s guilty plea and the allegations about several extramarital relationships, some of them long-term.

Hunter’s defense lawyer has tried to make it seem as if spending campaign dollars on personal relationships was just part of the job. “However unpopular the notion of a married man mixing business with pleasure,” the lawyer wrote in court papers, the government can’t “dismiss the reality” that Hunter’s relationships with the women in question “often served an overtly political purpose” that would not have existed if Hunter had not been a member of Congress.

Even if that outlandish excuse were to fly with the jury, Hunter will have a harder time explaining why it was reasonable to spend campaign cash, as the government has alleged, on a family vacation to Italy, on airfare to fly the family’s pet rabbit across the country, and on groceries, utility bills, clothing and personal entertainment. The Iraq war veteran also must explain why he reported on campaign documents that a purchase of a pair of golf shorts was a contribution to a veterans group.

Our position on this issue has nothing to do with Hunter’s politics. If he were a Democrat or an independent or anyone else in a position of power, we’d call for his or her resignation. These are serious charges that, if proved, mean Hunter is unfit to serve in public office. It’s time, past time really, for Hunter to step up by stepping down from Congress. If he is cleared of the charges, he can run again.

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