Rep. Duncan Hunter’s Wife, Margaret, Pleads Guilty To Misusing Campaign Funds
Speaker 1: 00:00 Margaret Hunter, the wife of indicted San Diego. Congressman Duncan Hunter appeared in federal court today to change her plea from not guilty to guilty. The pair are accused of using $250,000 in campaign contributions for their own personal use. We'll talk about what the bleed deal means for her and for Congressman Duncan Hunter's defense when he goes on trial later this year. But first, let's find out what happened in court this morning. Joining us now as KPBS report. Matt Hoffman. Matt, thanks for being with us. Thanks Alison. So tell us what happened in court today. Speaker 2: 00:31 Yeah, so today, Margaret Hunter, uh, the wife of Duncan Hunter was in a federal court, um, before she came into court though, uh, there was, uh, a little scrub. We had a chance to ask her a couple of questions. He didn't respond to any of them. Um, we asked her if she had talked to her husband. She didn't respond, but it's worth noting that she didn't have a wedding ring on. And then she went into the courtroom. It was a fairly short hearing. She changed her plea from not guilty to guilty under terms of a plea agreement. Uh, there was a number of counts that they were charging. They just decided to charge her under this plea agreement with one count. Um, and that's, uh, agreeing to plead guilty to conspiring with codefendant a Duncan Hunter to spend campaign funds for personal use from 2010 to 2016. That is a maximum sentence of five years, uh, for these charges. Per the plea agreement, she agrees to provide statements, um, including even possibly testifying I'm in front of a grand jury, a or any jury in terms of a pretrial, regular trial or a post trial. Her attorneys did read a statement immediately following the court hearing. Speaker 1: 01:32 Let's listen to that statement. Speaker 3: 01:33 Earlier this morning, I entered a guilty plea before the United States district court. 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 caused my family and others. I understand that there will be more consequences stemming from my actions. But as demonstrated this morning at the entry of the plea, I've taken the first step to face those consequences. Speaker 1: 02:07 So Matt, just quickly remind us of the, the, the full charges that were laid out in the indictment. What, what are Margaret Hunter and her husband accused of? Speaker 2: 02:15 Right, yeah. The original indictment from last year a accuses them of spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, uh, to, you know, hotel fare, um, air fare, um, food books. Um, and they, they said that the prosecution said that she did this and her husband to enrich their lives. Um, and they knowingly did it, um, when they didn't have any personal funds. They spent these campaign funds, she's do it in court for sentencing on Monday, September 16th. So between now and then, um, we might learn more about a potential deal in terms of is she going to actually have to go and do hard time or is there going to be some other sort of a deal worked out? Speaker 1: 02:56 And we understand that congressman hunter has a statement. Speaker 2: 03:00 Yeah. Uh, immediately following the court hearing, Congressman Hunter, uh, issued a statement saying, quote, I do not have the full details of Margaret's case, but it's obvious that the Department of Justice Doj when after her to get me for political reasons, as Margaret's case concludes, she should be left alone. I am the congressman. This is my campaign in any further attention on this issue should be directed solely at me. He also then went on to say that he believes that the DOJ should not be handling this, that the federal elections commission, the FEC should be handling this case. Speaker 1: 03:31 That was [inaudible] to Matt Hoffman then at the federal courthouse this morning. Thank you man. Speaker 2: 03:36 Thanks Alison. Speaker 4: 03:37 Okay, Speaker 1: 03:37 and joining us now is Jason forge a former prosecutor with the US attorney's office who prosecuted Congressman Duke Cunningham back in the 1990s the largest corruption case in congressional history. He's now a partner with the San Diego Office of the law from Robbins Geller Rudman and Dowd LLP. Thanks for coming in, Jason. Thanks for having me. So now I'm Margaret Hunter has just pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy. How does this change the penalties that she's facing in this case? Speaker 4: 04:06 Well it actually lowers the penalties significantly. And one of the most salient aspects of the plea agreement is that the government has already provided a recommendation that she has earned substantial credit for her cooperation with the government, which means in effect that she's already provided substantial assistance to the government in its prosecution of her husband. Yep. Speaker 1: 04:31 What do you think could motivate her to change her plea here? Cause she pleaded not guilty last year. Speaker 4: 04:38 Right. Well first and foremost, as we saw from the level of detail in the indictment, there was an overwhelming amount of evidence against her. So that's the number one motivation. The second one, which is probably very close to that first is as everyone observed at the time, her husband took the very unusual and not necessarily very honorable, a approach of blaming his wife for this activity that was not very honorable. And a number of respects. Uh, probably the most prominent one being a number of these allegations seem to indicate that he was using campaign funds to pay for activities related to extra marital affairs that he had. So the fact that he's actually engaging in activities that made these offenses more readily provable activities, uh, of infidelity against his wife and then turned around to blame her for the very activities that they're charged with. It was very unusual for a couple to be charged and have their cases resolved separately. Speaker 1: 05:47 We do actually have a cut of hunter who said earlier that although the campaign, he admitted they did make mistakes. He basically blamed his wife Margaret. And here's what he told Fox News shortly after he was indicted, Speaker 5: 05:58 you handle my finances throughout my entire military career. And that continued on when I got into Congress cause I'm gone five days a week. I'm home for two. So why? And she was also the camp, the campaign manager. So whatever she did on that, that'll be a, that'll be looked at too, I'm sure. But, uh, but I didn't do it. Speaker 4: 06:15 I mean, how feasible is it that he was unaware over a period of several years that he was using campaign contributions to live his lifestyle? Well beyond his means, given the level of detail that has been provided at both of the indictment and in this plea agreement, it does not seem remotely plausible. What are you saying now? What kind of information could Margaret Hunter reveal now that would affect the outcome of this case for the congressman? Well, she can reveal a tremendous amount of information that removes any ambiguity about a number of these transactions. Because as you can see in the plea agreement, and this was also true in the indictment, many of these transactions involve what are ordinarily routine family activities, holidays in Italy, dental expenses, Irish river dance competitions, those types of activities. And for a couple that was financially underwater to the point of hundreds of bounce checks and overdrawn credit cards, it's just not plausible that that wouldn't be a discussion between husband and wife and that he wouldn't be aware of it. Speaker 4: 07:21 But the fact that she's going to be testifying to that effect just eliminates any room for doubt. Do you think the prosecutors didn't have a strong enough case to, to win it and that's why they entered into this PDL with, with his wife? No, I wouldn't look at it that way at all. First of all, it's very common for the prosecution to try to cooperate a, a defendant, a lower level of responsibility against a defendant of a higher level of responsibility. So they obviously view Mr. Hunter as being more culpable. If for no other reason, he is the actual elected official. And so no, it does not betray any sort of weakness in our case against her. In fact, it, it reinforces the strength of the case against her because she's looking at an overwhelming amount of evidence. And so the notion of going to trial just for the sake of going to trial when she's going to be convicted, obviously it wasn't very attractive to her. Speaker 4: 08:22 I wanted to ask you to explain a comment that uh, the Congressmen's attorney, Gregory Vega wrote. He says, we're aware of Mrs. Hunter scheduling a hearing to change our plea. And that doesn't change anything regarding congressman hunter. There is still a significant motions that need to be litigated, specifically the speech or debate clause of the u s constitution. What does he mean there? Well, the speech or to be clause of the constitution is a clause that protects members of Congress from prosecution for their legislative activities. It's in essence, an important part of our separation of to make sure that individuals are not prosecuted for political reasons and not prosecuted for their legitimate political activities. Frankly, anytime you charge or even investigate a member of Congress, this is virtually a reflex there. They are always going to raise speech or debate issues and tried to drag any type of activity into the purview of legislative activity. Speaker 4: 09:23 There are a number of protections that they can avail themselves of, including a right to immediate appeal if the district court rules against them. If you were to look ahead at the congressman's political future, how does this play deal do you think affect it? Well, I think that depends on his constituents and that depends on his opponent. The initial charges obviously did not dissuade a majority of the people in that district from voting for him. So by the time of the next election, he may be a convicted felon. They might think differently about voting for him again, and he appears in court again next month and then the child starts in timber. Jason, thanks so much for getting us a bit of your insights. My pleasure. That's a former prosecutor with the US attorney's office. Jason Forge.