Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Republican from Alpine, Calif., who on Dec. 3 pleaded guilty to a felony involving campaign spending, said he will officially resign Monday.
He notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Gavin Newsom in a letter Tuesday that he will resign Jan. 13, nearly six weeks after his guilty plea.
“It has been an honor to serve the people of California’s 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years,” Hunter wrote.
Hunter, who was elected to office in 2008, was indicted in August 2018 on 60 federal counts based on accusations that he and his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, stole $250,000 of campaign funds, using it for family vacations, groceries, his extramarital affairs and other non-campaign uses, including airfare for a pet rabbit.
He recently reached a deal and pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to convert campaign funds to personal use, a federal felony for which he could be sentenced to up to five years in prison, although many consider it unlikely he’ll serve that long.
He is expected to be sentenced March 17.
Hunter’s resignation puts the ball in Newsom’s court for determining whether to call a special election to fill his vacant seat.
Because Hunter’s resignation will take effect after the filing deadline for the March primary ballot, which was early last month, Newsom has the option of leaving the seat vacant until after the November election.
Or the governor can call for a special election in addition to the primary. It may be difficult to call for a special election to be consolidated with the March 3 primary because mail ballots for both elections would be sent about the same time and could be confusing for voters.
Newsom also could call for a special election that would take place after the March primary.
As the congressional representative for the 50th District — which includes much of eastern San Diego County as well as the north county communities of Fallbrook, San Marcos, Valley Center and Escondido, and a small portion of Riverside County — Hunter leaves behind a divisive legacy.
For some supporters, the east county native, who enlisted with the Marine Corps shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, will be remembered for his public advocacy on military and veterans issues and as one of the earliest congressional backers ofDonald Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy.
Like his father before him, Hunter served on the House Armed Services Committee for the entirety of his tenure and had a hand in setting the annual defense budget. His office also had a reputation for constituent services, especially related to assisting veterans with issues involving the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Hunter also was an outspoken advocate for military service members accused of war crimes, including Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of the most serious war-crimes charges leveled against him in a San Diego court martial last summer but was convicted of posing with an ISIS fighter’s corpse.
Early on, Hunter sought to draw attention Gallagher’s situation, visiting him at the Miramar brig, bringing him food and blankets, and petitioning the president to intervene and release Gallagher from confinement. Ultimately, Trump intervened and restored Gallagher’s rank, overturning the verdict of the SEAL’s court-martial jury in November.
Hunter said in his resignation letter that he was most proud of “giving a voice to our men and women in uniform.”
“As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I brought attention to inefficient military programs and worked to make sure our war fighters had the resources they needed to carry out their mission,” he wrote in his letter. “I helped shine light on a broken military awards process that failed to recognize true heroism, and I fought for warriors like Clint Lorance, Eddie Gallagher and Matt Golsteyn that were treated unjustly by an abusive military justice system.”
Lorance was an Army officer convicted of the murder of two civilians in Afghanistan; Golsteyn was a Green Beret charged with murdering a civilian in Afghanistan. Both men were pardoned by President Trump.
For others, Hunter will be remembered for tarnishing his office and refusing to accept responsibility for the actions that led to criminal charges.
When questions first arose about Hunter’s irregular campaign spending practices in April of 2016, a spokesman for Hunter dismissed the issues as a mix-up, saying Hunter’s son accidentally took the wrong credit card from Hunter’s wallet to purchase a video game online. The spokesman also said that other non-campaign expenditures were a result of fraud by someone other than Hunter.
Hunter continued to deny intentional wrongdoing as questioning about campaign expenditures intensified. He said his campaign would conduct an audit but nothing would be repaid until then.
In August of 2018 federal prosecutors levied a sweeping indictment against Hunter and his wife, alleging they used more than $250,000 in political contributions to pay personal expenses, including private-school tuition for their children, international vacations, fast food, home repairs and even $600 in airfare for the family pet rabbit, Eggburt. Hunter said the indictment against him and his wife was a “witch hunt” and that federal prosecutors were out to get him because of his early support of Trump.
Prosecutors also accused the congressman of using campaign funds to pay for a series of extramarital affairs with five women, including three lobbyists and two congressional staffers. Among other things, he used political contributions to pay for cocktails, resort stays, Uber rides and lavish meals, according to prosecutors.
Even when he ultimately pleaded guilty in December, Hunter did not fully own up to the wrongdoing.
“I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes, and that’s what today was all about,” Hunter told reporters outside the courthouse after his guilty plea. Then he refused to answer reporters’ questions, instead directing them to a TV interview the day before with a friendly TV station that allowed Hunter’s staff to write the questions for the “interview.”
Prosecutors said Hunter’s behavior amounted to more than simple mistakes.
“This is not a case about mismanagement or accounting errors or mistakes,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Emily Allen, adding: “While this crime may not involve allegations of cash bribes, make no mistake, it is corruption all the same.”
Hunter also drew national attention — and scorn — during the 2018 election cycle for spreading what were widely criticized as racist and Islamophobic ads and mailers accusing his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, of being a terrorist.
Campa-Najjar said Tuesday that Hunter should have resigned weeks ago.
“What’s done is done, now it’s time for the constituents of CA-50 to pick up the pieces and move forward together,” he said in a statement. “As the leading candidate and a constituent of the district, I am committed to restoring real representation to the forgotten people of our district and giving this seat back to its rightful owner — the people of CA-50.”
The top Republican challengers for the 50th District also weighed in.
“I joined this race because I believe voters deserve a strong conservative voice in Congress who will stand up for our values, support President Trump’s agenda, and fight back against the radical left,” former Rep. Darrell Issa said in a statement. “Duncan Hunter did the right thing by resigning and I wish him and his family the best.”
Candidate Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman and radio host, also called for Hunter’s resignation after his guilty plea and asked the governor to call a special election.
“The people of the 50th Congressional District deserve their voice in Congress to be restored,” DeMaio said in a statement. “Leaving the 50th Congressional District vacant for a full year is wholly unacceptable, and I urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to call a special election as soon as possible.”
Clark writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.