Indicted congressman's wife pleads guilty to corruption

Margaret Hunter, left, wife of indicted Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, arrives at federal courthouse in downtown San Diego on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Hunter, who had previously pleaded not guilty to correction charges, 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. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

SAN DIEGO — The wife of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty Thursday to a single corruption count and agreed to testify against her husband at his trial on charges the couple spent more than $200,000 in campaign funds on trips, dinners, clothes and other personal expenses.

Margaret Hunter served as campaign chair for her husband, and after the couple was indicted last year the Republican congressman from California suggested his wife was to blame for any misuse of funds.

They both pleaded not guilty but she reversed course and withdrew her plea Thursday during a brief federal court hearing.

In a statement read by her attorney after accepting a plea agreement that could send her to prison for up to five years, she said she accepts full responsibility for her actions.  

"I am deeply remorseful, and I apologize," she said.  

Prosecutors allege the couple engaged in more than 30 illegal transactions totaling more than $200,000 between 2010 and 2016. The spending included money for trips to Italy, Hawaii and Las Vegas and expensive dinners, as well as more mundane items like shirts and tequila shots.

The improper spending occurred when the couple knew their household budget was in tatters and they were being charged tens of thousands of dollars for overdrafts and credit card fees, authorities said.

In her plea agreement, Margaret Hunter said she would help the prosecution and testify on their behalf. She also agreed to provide documents.

Duncan Hunter said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press that political reasons prompted the U.S. Justice Department to pressure his wife to testify.

The congressman, a close ally of President Donald Trump, said after he was indicted last year that the Justice Department was "the Democrats' arm of law enforcement."

He said Thursday that the case should have been handled by the Federal Elections Commission and alleged U.S. prosecutors indicted him and his wife ahead of the November elections "to inflict as much political damage as possible in hopes of picking up a congressional seat."

"It was politically motivated at the beginning, it remains politically motivated now," he said.

Margaret Hunter is set to be sentenced Sept. 17. Her husband's trial is set for Sept. 10.

The California congressman's attorney, Gregory Vega, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Margaret Hunter's decision should have no impact on his client's federal corruption case.

The alleged misuse of funds occurred from 2010 to 2016.

Since the indictment, the Hunters have entered U.S. court in San Diego separately with their own attorneys and also have left separately. Rep. Hunter did not attend his wife's hearing Thursday.

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.

Former U.S. prosecutor Jason A. Forge said it's rare for one spouse to plead out when the other's case has not been resolved. Her cooperation and testimony could significantly strengthen and already strong case, he said.

Forge prosecuted California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned from Congress in 2005 and served more than seven years in prison for one of the worst bribery scandals to ever bring down a federal lawmaker.

"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 $400 worth of tequila shots, golf outings, school tuition, and Costco shopping sprees.

They also are accused of trying to conceal the illegal spending in federal campaign finance reports. Duncan Hunter's lawyers said in 2017 that the couple repaid the campaign about $60,000.

Hunter, a Marine combat veteran, was one of two Republican federal lawmakers to win re-election last November after being indicted on corruption charges.

Vega, his lawyer, wrote in an August letter to the Justice Department urging prosecutors to delay any action until after the election that "while there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence, the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity."

The Hunter family is a household name in a district that covers 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 heavily Republican congressional districts in Southern California.

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