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Politics

Rep. Duncan Hunter and wife plead not guilty to charges of fraudulent campaign spending

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U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter leaves a federal courthouse in San Diego after pleading not guilty to charges of illegally using his campaign account for personal expenses.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) and his wife pleaded not guilty Thursday to allegations of widespread misspending of campaign funds on personal items — from family vacations to video games to private school tuition.

The arraignment in San Diego federal court was the first court appearance for Hunter and his wife, Margaret Hunter, since being indicted by a grand jury Tuesday.

The couple are charged in a 60-count indictment with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, falsification of records, bank fraud and aiding and abetting in the prohibited use of campaign contributions.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Gallo allowed both to remain free on bail, with Duncan Hunter released on a $15,000 bond and his wife on a $10,000 bond. Both had to be fingerprinted by the U.S. Marshals Service and give DNA samples.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip Halpern told the judge that, while the government considers the allegations “to be extremely serious,” the pair have shown no signs of being a flight risk during the investigation. He said the couple also didn’t have any substantial assets and were “living paycheck to paycheck.”

The judge set additional conditions of release, including restricting travel to within the continental U.S. Duncan Hunter must also submit to drug testing and give up two guns that he owns.

The couple arrived separately with their attorneys and did not speak to each other in the courtroom, which was filled to capacity with reporters, investigators, attorneys and other onlookers. The Hunters held stoic expressions during the short hearing.

The indictment details some 200 alleged instances of the Hunters using campaign funds for personal expenses totaling more than $250,000, including airfare for a pet rabbit, tequila, and tickets to Pittsburgh Steelers NFL games. Using political contributions for personal expenses is illegal under federal election law.

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The couple are also accused of lying to cover up the spending and of continuing to draw from campaign coffers despite warnings from staffers and inquiries from investigators and reporters.

Their personal bank account was overdrawn some 1,100 times over a seven-year period, prosecutors allege.

Hunter is paid $174,000 a year as a member of Congress, while Margaret Hunter receives $3,000 a month as her husband’s campaign manager.

Hunter on Wednesday assailed his prosecution as a “witch hunt” and blamed “partisan Democrats” for bringing the case against him and his wife. He flatly denied ever using his campaign funds for personal expenses.

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Protestros follow U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter as he leaves a federal courthouse in San Diego after pleading not guilty to charges of illegally using his campaign account for personal expenses.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Hunter’s attorney, Greg Vega, has accused the U.S. attorney’s office of having a conflict of interest in filing the charges, pointing to two prosecutors on the case who attended a Democratic fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2015 in La Jolla.

The prosecutors were there in an official capacity at the request of the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

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The criminal investigation began after the Federal Election Commission and the San Diego Union-Tribune began raising questions about certain campaign expenses claimed by Hunter in April 2016.

Hunter reviewed the matter and repaid more than $60,000 back to his campaign, calling the expenditures mistaken, personal or insufficiently documented. He sold his home in Alpine to make the payment and moved in with his father, who is also named Duncan and is a longtime former congressman.

Rep. Hunter, who succeeded his father in 2008, is up for reelection in a runoff race in November. He represents the 50th Congressional District, which includes much of eastern and northern San Diego County.

Outside the courthouse after the arraignment, dozens of protesters with the Indivisible San Diego activist group chanted “Shame!” as they waited alongside news cameras for the Hunters to emerge.

“To see this day we all expected to come finally got here,” said protester Kathy Stadler, 45, of San Diego. “It’s not good — it’s incredibly sad — but it shows the system may still be working. There are checks and balances still.”

The Hunters are set to return to court on Sept. 4.

Prosecutors told the judge they were ready to hand over to defense attorneys enough information to fit on a two-terabyte hard drive in the discovery phase of the case.

Davis and Cook write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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