Rep. Duncan Hunter’s Wife, Margaret, Pleads Guilty To Misusing Campaign Funds
The wife of San Diego-area Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal conspiracy charge in a case in which she and her spouse were accused of misusing campaign funds for personal use.
Margaret Hunter, 44, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 16. Her attorney, Thomas McNamara, declined to say if his client plans to testify against her husband.
McNamara read a brief statement from Margaret Hunter, in which she apologized for her actions.
"Earlier this morning, I entered a guilty plea before the United States District Court," Margaret Hunter said in the statement. "In doing so, I have fully accepted responsibility for my conduct. I am deeply remorseful and I apologize. I am saddened for the hurt that I've caused my family and others. I understand that there will be more consequences stemming from my actions but as demonstrated this morning with the entry of the plea, I've taken the first step to face those consequences."
Duncan Hunter, 42, and his wife were accused in a 60-count indictment of taking money from campaign coffers as if they were personal bank accounts and falsifying Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports to cover their tracks. Both Hunters were slated to go to trial this fall on charges that include conspiracy, wire fraud and falsification of records.
Margaret Hunter signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors Wednesday and formally entered her plea before U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan Thursday morning. Under the terms of the deal, she faces up to five years in federal custody and a fine of up to $250,000.
Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney who is representing Duncan Hunter, told the San Diego Union-Tribune Wednesday that he was aware of the change-of-plea hearing but declined to comment on whether it signals a decision by Margaret Hunter to testify against her husband.
Rep. Hunter issued a statement that said, in part, the investigation is politically motivated.
"I do not have the full details of Margaret’s case — but it's obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons," he said. " As Margaret’s case concludes she should be left alone. I am the Congressman, this is my campaign and any further attention on this issue should be directed solely to me."
The original indictment details scores of instances beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, in which the Hunters — who have been married since 1998 and have three children — are accused of illegally using campaign money to pay for such things as family vacations to Italy, Hawaii and Boise, Idaho, school tuition, dental work, theater tickets and smaller purchases, including fast food, tequila shots, golf outings and video games.
The indictment alleges that at one point, Hunter used $600 in campaign cash to fly his pet rabbit to a family vacation.
The Hunters allegedly misreported the expenses on FEC filings, using false descriptions such as "campaign travel," "toy drives," "dinner with volunteers/contributors" and "gift cards," according to federal prosecutors.
Hunter's reelection campaign issued a statement last year condemning the indictment as politically motivated. He later appeared to blame his wife in a television interview, saying she was in charge of the campaign's finances.
His campaign blasted the timing of the indictment — about two months before the Nov. 6 general election — saying it "appears to be an effort to derail Congressman Hunter's re-election" bid.
Former Federal Prosecutor Jason Forge said it is uncommon for a wife to turn on her husband like this.
“Anytime a couple is charged it is very unusual for one to resolve the case completely independent of the resolution of the other,” Forge said. “It is far more common to have either a joint plea or even more often one spouse plead and the other get some sort of deferred prosecution.”
Forge said he believes there are a number of reasons that led Mrs. Hunter to cooperate with investigators, including comments made by Rep. Hunter.
“The husband of Mrs. Hunter actually pointed the finger at her after the initial charges,” he said. “Which is highly unusual.”
In August of 2018, Duncan Hunter said his wife was in charge of his finances and acted as campaign manager.
“When I joined the Marine Corps I gave power of attorney to my wife because I was gone all the time,” Hunter said. “Just like most guys who are gone all the time they give power of attorney to their wives and I didn’t have a lot of visibility on my personal finances and when I got elected within a year of my last tour I kept it going the same way.”
Forge said Mrs. Hunter’s move to cooperate with investigators does not necessarily mean there was not already a strong case against her and her husband.
“I think the government likely viewed Mr. Hunter as being far and away the more culpable of the two,” Forge said. “If for no other reason because he is the actual elected representative and these are funds for his campaign.”
Part of Mrs. Hunter’s plea agreement includes giving information and testifying in the case — something Forge said will be key in the prosecution of Hunter.
“I do think this is in my view the final nail in the coffin for him in this case,” Forge said.
Voters opted to keep him in office despite the allegations. Hunter was first elected to Congress in 2008, when he won the seat his father held for 14 terms.
If the congressman is convicted, there is no constitutional provision or House rule that explicitly requires him to lose his seat, even if he is sent to prison or unable to vote on behalf of his district.