Former Top Prosecutors Weigh In On Hunter Corruption Case
Thursday, August 15, 2019
Photo by Alexander Nguyen
This week a federal judge pushed back to next January the trial date for Congressman Duncan Hunter's campaign finance corruption case, thus extending for months the debate over whether Hunter is guilty of misusing campaign cash or the victim of partisan politics.
In 2018, prosecutors indicted the six-term congressman and his wife, Margaret Hunter, on charges they illegally spent more than $250,000 in campaign money to fund a lavish personal lifestyle that included family vacations, expensive dinners and golf trips.
Two former U.S. Attorneys with extensive experience in public corruption investigations say it is not easy to determine what’s illegal in these cases.
"A lot of this is grey," said Chuck LaBella who is former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. "Where does the political line end and the personal line begin?
Carol Lam, who also served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, said the complexities can prove difficult for prosecutors even when they have seemingly strong evidence.
"It does appear to be a fairly strong case," Lam said. "That’s a different question than if it’s a slam dunk in terms of a criminal trial and I think most experienced prosecutors would be hesitant to say that any trial is a slam dunk — particularly a white collar kind of case."
LaBella said the public's perception doesn't always match reality.
"The government is aware of these hurdles and I think the defense is — but I don’t think the general public is aware that how difficult these cases can be," he said.
He offers a hypothetical scenario to illustrate his point.
"When you have somebody who has been a campaign donor for you for years ... maybe you’re not running for reelection but ... you take them for a golf game — you take them for dinner — well isn’t that cultivating a source?" LaBella said. "I mean I think the defense is going to argue that's cultivating a source."
LaBella also points out that the source of the money matters.
"Remember campaign financing is not tax money," LaBella said. "It’s people who gave money to the congressman to promote himself."
In June, Margaret Hunter took a deal from the government. She pleaded guilty to conspiring with the six-term congressman to misuse campaign funds. It is easy to see how that might strengthen the case against him.
"The value of a cooperating defendant or a cooperating witness is that they were on the inside," Lam said. "So they sort of color in the picture for the jurors."
But LaBella said such witnesses can be unpredictable.
"When you put a spouse on the stand — when you put mistresses on the stand — it’s a jump ball for both sides," he said. "You don’t know what is going to come out of the witnesses mouth...they’re explosive, potentially explosive."
Hunter has argued he wouldn't get a fair trial in San Diego because negative media attention could sway a jury.
"I’ve had some very high profile cases that were on the front pages of our local papers for months and when we brought the potential jurors into the courtroom and asked how many of them had ever heard of the case of the allegations — we would only have a handful of people raise their hands," Lam said.
LaBella sees things differently.
"The people who are reading this or hearing it on TV are prospective jurors and so there’s a real chance here that it’s going to be difficult to pick a jury," he said.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in January, which gives Hunter plenty of time to decide whether to take a deal. Meanwhile, he's trying to appeal the case on grounds that prosecutors are violating his constitutional rights as a member of congress.
"When the evidence seems to be really strong there’s usually maybe an approach by the defense saying, 'Well you know he believes in his innocence but what would you offer if he was willing to resolve the case?'" Lam said.
But Hunter has said publicly that he's ready to fight.
"I’ve done nothing wrong," Hunter said in August 2018. "I say bring the trial now."
LaBella said the dynamics of the case are such that it seems destined for trial.
"I don’t see these parties coming together and striking a deal because they’re just so at odds with each other," he said. "One is saying night and the other is saying day."
If the case does go before a jury — will Hunter himself take the witness stand? Lam says it’s a tough choice.
"If a defendant takes the witness stand and denies the allegations and is found guilty anyway — that is probably going to hurt the defendant at the time of sentencing," she said.
Both Lam and LaBella agree a decision to testify will likely come after the government finishes presenting its case.
"If the defense believes the government hasn’t come close to proving it’s case I think the chances of congressman Hunter testifying are slim," LaBella said. "If the defense feels that they have to answer certain things and only he can answer them then it’s going to be a jump ball."
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