By Danny R. Johnson – Political News Editor
SAN DIEGO–Federal U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan on Monday refused to dismiss the campaign finance violation case against California Republican U.S. House of Representative (Rep.) Duncan Hunter.
In San Diego federal court, Judge Whelan rejected arguments from Hunter’s attorneys that the case was politically driven because two assistant U.S. attorneys attended a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and later brought the case against Hunter, who they argued was one of the first congressmen to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
According to court records, Judge Whelan also cautiously denied a motion to move Rep. Hunter’s September 2019 trial to a different venue, despite their arguments that the jury pool in San Diego would be tainted by the ample press coverage of Rep. Hunter’s alleged misuse of more than $200,000 in campaign funds. The issue will be revisited during jury selection according to the judge.
Hunter and his wife Margaret Hunter were indicted in August 2018 on charges that they misused $200,000 to furnish a lavish lifestyle between 2010 and 2016 — at a time when they were repeatedly overdrawing their personal checking account. They were charged with falsifying records, conspiracy, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations. The San Diego County congressman’s trial is set for September 10, 2019.
While Hunter has maintained that the couple’s spending on the campaign credit card was an error, in a stunning and surprising development, his wife has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. In June 2019 she pleaded guilty to conspiring with her husband to “knowingly and willingly” convert campaign funds for personal use. In the 22-page plea, Margaret Hunter acknowledged that the couple spent more than $200,000 in campaign funds for the personal enjoyment of their family and friends, including for family vacations, private school tuition, school lunches and routine household items. Her agreement to cooperate with prosecutors was a gloomy development for the congressman, underscoring both the legal and political difficulty that confronts him.
In recent court filings, prosecutors also accused Rep. Hunter of using campaign funds to carry out five extramarital affairs with lobbyists and aides, including a ski trip.
Rep. Hunter, a former U.S. Marine who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintains that his wife was pressured into cooperating with prosecutors, who he says are politically motivated by the desire to win his district. He has pleaded not guilty and has repaid tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign account, according to Federal Election Commission records.
According to news reports, Hunter’s lawyers have sought to get the case dismissed because two assistant U.S. attorneys involved in investigating Rep. Hunter attended a Clinton fundraiser in La Jolla in August of 2015 and took a picture with the Democratic candidate, according to correspondence with the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) that was obtained by Hunter’s defense team through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Hunter’s attorneys said in a pre-trial motion that correspondence between the two attorneys and the USSS suggests they pre-arranged a photo with Clinton, and his defense team argued in court documents that “their attendance at the event raises serious concerns regarding a conflict of interest and loss of impartiality.”
“The former Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California and the Assistant U.S. Attorney leading the investigation of Congressman Hunter both attended a political fundraiser for candidate Clinton and shortly thereafter both were involved in initiating an investigation of the first Congressman to endorse candidate Trump. These facts alone warranted recusal of the two attorneys,” Hunter’s lawyers wrote in a court filing.
Court records indicated neither of the assistant U.S. Attorneys donated to Clinton’s campaign — and the U.S. Attorney’s office told Hunter’s lawyers that they were present at the fundraiser in their official capacity assisting law enforcement.
Rep. Hunter has rejected the allegations as a “smear campaign” and Hunter’s attorneys said the filing detailing the alleged affairs was intended to “publicly embarrass Mr. Hunter with evidence that reflects poorly on his character.” Rep. Hunter, who was elected in 2008, has so far survived the political fallout from the charges, narrowly winning reelection in 2018 against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar — a former Obama U.S. Department of Labor Department official who is running against Rep. Hunter again in 2020 — in a deeply Republican district.