Margaret Hunter Sentenced To Eight Months Home Confinement For Misusing Campaign Funds
Monday, August 24, 2020
Photo by Alexander Nguyen
Margaret Hunter, who pleaded guilty along with her husband — former Rep. Duncan Hunter — to illegally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal purposes, was sentenced Monday to eight months of home confinement, slated to begin immediately, and three years probation.
The former East County congressman's wife, who also acted as his campaign manager during much of the time the pair improperly spent campaign funds on personal expenditures, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge more than a year ago.
Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty about six months later, then resigned from Congress the following month. He was sentenced in March to 11 months in federal prison, but has yet to serve any of his term as the COVID-19 pandemic led to a postponement of his self-surrender date. He's not expected to report to prison until possibly as late as January.
Margaret Hunter's attorneys argued for an out-of-custody sentence involving home confinement and prosecutors agreed, citing her agreement to cooperate with investigators and the manner in which prosecutors say her husband directed blame at her when the allegations became public.
Prosecutors did seek to have her home confinement delayed until January, as they stated it would be more punitive at that time, with the COVID-19 pandemic currently keeping the majority of the general public confined to their homes.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan, however, opted to begin her term immediately.
Margaret Hunter made a brief, tearful statement to the court prior to sentencing, saying "I continue to take full responsibility. I'm deeply sorry."
Her attorney Thomas McNamara issued a similar statement shortly after her sentencing.
“As she did when she entered a very early plea in the case, Margaret Hunter continues to accept full responsibility for her conduct,” McNamara said in the emailed statement. “We believe the sentence imposed is just and takes into account not only her conduct but the extraordinary cooperation Ms. Hunter provided.”
Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Chuck LaBella said he was not surprised to see Margaret avoid prison.
“She cooperated, she cooperated actively and she cooperated early,” he said. LaBella also understands why people might see her sentence as a “slap on the wrist” — but said it is much more complicated.
“Anybody who says it’s a slap on the wrist just because you get probation or home confinement I don’t think understands the mental anguish and the hardship that individuals who are investigated for months and months and months have to endure — even after they’re changed, indicted or even after they plead guilty,” LaBella said. “They’re in the press — especially in a case like this — it’s tough.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen said the defendant spent most of the funds, but her role was "far less egregious" than that of her husband, who the prosecutor said was "the driving force" behind the crime.
"He was the elected official. He was the person in charge of the campaign and he was the decision-maker who chose to allow this to go on," Allen said.
Prior to his plea, Duncan Hunter repeatedly and publicly denied wrongdoing. He attributed more than $1,000 in video game purchases to his son, while later suggesting his wife may have been responsible for the misspending, as she was the campaign manager and in charge of those finances.
He later accused the U.S. Attorney's Office of a politically motivated prosecution, saying some of the lead prosecutors in his case attended a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. He alleged the prosecution targeted him because he was one of the earliest supporters of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
"Today we're reminded that no one is above the law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said following the hearing.
The prosecutor said the sentence handed down was appropriate because "not only did she have to withstand being thrown under the proverbial bus by her husband, but she took responsibility."
Conover also credited Margaret Hunter's cooperation, saying that without it, prosecutors would have likely had to go to trial in order to secure a conviction against Duncan Hunter. Her cooperation "led Congressman Hunter to understand that he would not escape responsibility for his crime," according to Conover.
The couple were indicted in 2018, charged with unlawfully spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on family vacations, restaurant and bar tabs, clothes and other frivolous expenses over the course of several years, while falsely stating to staff that the purchases were campaign-related.
Prosecutors said that despite their lavish spending, the couple were in dire financial straits, overdrawing their bank account more than 1,100 times over a seven-year period.
Amid the charges and public allegations, Hunter was re-elected in November 2018 with 51.7% of the vote in the 50th Congressional District, despite being indicted three months prior. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father, who held the congressional seat for 28 years.
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