Nearly a year after Rep. Duncan Hunter suggested his wife was to blame for their indictment over the alleged misuse of $250,000 in campaign funds, Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds, including for an Italy trip that cost more than $10,000.
Margaret Hunter, who worked as her husband’s campaign manager, had previously pleaded not guilty to corruption charges alleging the couple used more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal trips, hotel rooms and shopping sprees.
But on Thursday she withdrew that plea in U.S. court in San Diego and pleaded guilty to a single count carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison. The misuse of campaign funds spanned from 2010 to the end of 2016.
The move suggests she is cooperating with the prosecution and might even testify against her husband. His trial is scheduled for September.
Gregory Vega, the attorney for Hunter (R-Alpine), told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Margaret Hunter’s decision should have no impact on his client’s federal corruption case that alleges the couple spent campaign money on a lavish lifestyle, bankrolling Italian and Hawaiian vacations, tequila shots and theater tickets while their household budget was in the red.
Former federal prosecutor Jason A. Forge disagrees. Forge prosecuted California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned from Congress in 2005 and served more than seven years in prison in one of the worst bribery scandals to ever bring down a federal lawmaker.
Forge said it’s rare for one spouse to plead out when the other’s case has not been resolved.
“I would say it’s a virtual certainty that she’s cooperating with the government and therefore will be testifying against her husband,” Forge said, adding he believes that makes the case “winnable.”
Forge said Margaret Hunter may be ready to testify about the status of their marriage and how much sway she had over the spending.
Margaret Hunter’s lawyers did not respond to a request by the Associated Press seeking comment, nor did the lawmaker’s attorneys.
Since the indictment last year, the two have entered and left federal court in San Diego separately with their own attorneys.
In an interview with Fox News last year, the six-term congressman said his campaign made mistakes, that he gave his wife power of attorney when he deployed as a Marine to Iraq in 2003 and that she handled his finances during his last five terms in office.
“She can remove any doubt that he might have been able to raise as far as him being away in Washington and that she was 100% responsible for all of this activity,” Forge said.
The couple, who have three children, pleaded not guilty last year after a federal grand jury indicted them on charges of spending campaign cash on tequila shots, golf outings, school tuition and Costco shopping sprees between 2009 and 2016.
They also are accused of trying to conceal the alleged illegal spending in federal campaign finance reports. Duncan Hunter’s lawyers said in 2017 that the couple repaid the campaign about $60,000.
Hunter was one of two Republican federal lawmakers to win reelection in November after being indicted on corruption charges. He is scheduled to go on trial in September, and his lawyers have called the allegations a political witch hunt.
Vega, his lawyer, in an August letter to the Justice Department urging prosecutors to delay any action until after the election, wrote that “while there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence, the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity.”
The Marine combat veteran recently championed dismissal of a war crimes case against a decorated Navy SEAL, which the president has considered.
Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher is charged with stabbing to death a teenage Islamic State fighter under his care in Iraq in 2017 and then holding his reenlistment ceremony with the body.
Hunter acknowledged taking a photo with a dead combatant during his time in Iraq.
The Hunter family is a household name in a district that covers largely inland areas of San Diego County and runs into Riverside County. His father, also named Duncan, served nearly three decades in one of the most Republican congressional districts in Southern California.