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Hunter Pleads Guilty To Misusing Campaign Money

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The Republican congressman pleaded to one count of misuse of campaign funds as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

Speaker 1: 00:00 It was just a few weeks ago that representative Dunkin Hunter was calling the investigation into him and subsequent charges, part of a deep state effort to get rid of him. But his tune changed yesterday as he agreed to plead guilty to one of the 60 charges of campaign finance violations against him. KPBS reporter Priya Schreder has been covering the case and was at the downtown courthouse this morning for Hunter's hearing and she joins us now. Priya, welcome. Thank you. We know Hunter planned to plead guilty to one charge of misusing campaign funds. Can you tell us exactly what happened in court this morning?

Speaker 2: 00:33 That's right. So they essentially outlined exactly what he was pleading guilty to and they referenced a lunch that he had with his family for his daughter's birthday in Cornetto at the hotel Del where he spent approximately $500 and then wrote that off as a campaign use. And they also referenced a lunch at a French bistro in Washington DC with another congressmen. And, uh, it was essentially a social outing, but he also wrote that down as, uh, a campaign expenses. So he essentially pleaded guilty to one count of misuse of campaign finances. The federal prosecutor said that that was the main count in their indictment. His sentencing is set for March 17th of next year at 9:00 AM and he faces up to five years in custody, three years of supervision upon release and a $250,000 fine.

Speaker 1: 01:26 Did he announce his resignation?

Speaker 2: 01:28 So he did an end. That's something that a lot of reporters were, um, sort of asking him when he was walking into the courthouse and when he came out he did give a brief statement outside where he essentially said I made mistakes. He referred to an interview that he did yesterday with local news station, K, USI. And he told us to basically look at that interview for his sentiments. And beyond that he said that he could be making more statements in the future, but wouldn't exactly say, uh, whether or not he was resigning. We did ask federal prosecutors about that. They said that resignation plans weren't specifically outlined in the negotiations, but it was understood by the defense that, uh, he would be resigning. So they said instead of looking towards his reelection, which she had been previously campaigning for over the past few months, um, that now he's looking at disgrace, imp, uh, possible incarceration and resignation.

Speaker 1: 02:25 We're the judge and prosecution team. Okay. With Hunter pleading guilty to just one out of the 60 charges,

Speaker 2: 02:31 they said repeatedly the federal prosecutors, when they were giving statements outside of the courthouse after the hearing was over, that this was the main count and that they feel as though, you know, justice had been served because he was finally taking responsibility and not saying that this was just simply mismanagement of funds or kind of pointing the finger at his wife. And so it seems like they feel as though justice has finally been served. And of course, I think everyone's kind of waiting to see what the actual sentence will be. They did say that at minimum they would seek about a year for a prison sentence, but it could be anywhere up to five. It's been reported. The reason Hunter changed his plea is because he would rather serve his time than put his kids through the public spectacle of a trial. He also mentioned he didn't want his wife to serve jail time.

Speaker 2: 03:21 Is there any indication of how his plea may impact Margaret Hunter sentencing? Right. We asked federal prosecutors that today and they said that it would have no impact over her sentencing, so it's unclear. He did mention that in his interview at Kay USAA yesterday that he keeps referring to that. The three reasons he did this was because of his three kids. A lot of the details, the allegations against him were already in the federal indictment and have been covered extensively in the press. But I think going through an actual trial and having to relive those things on a daily basis is essentially what he was referring to. Try to spare his kids and he said that, you know, they've been living in the public spotlight for so long and it's a chance for them to kind of finally be away from that spotlight. And did he say which Republican he would now want to succeed him?

Speaker 2: 04:06 He did not, but actually Carl DMIO and Amar camp in his jar who was his democratic opponent in last year's election were both at the court house today and made statements to reporters afterwards. He did say that he hopes his seat stays in Republican hands. So, uh, who that's gonna be is we're going to have to wait until the March primary to see, but we have a few contenders, Carl DeMaio, a state Senator Brian Jones and the former Congressman Darrel ice on the Republican side. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Prius Shree there. Priya, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.

Speaker 1: 04:39 With Duncan Hunter's guilty play, a Republican political dynasty in the East County appears to be coming to an end. Congressman Duncan Hunter and his father also Congressman Duncan Hunter together represented the communities of the 50th district for nearly 40 years. So what comes next for the 50th district? There are already a number of Republicans running and a Democrat who came close to winning in 2018. Joining me by Skype is professor Thad Couser. He's chair of the political science department at UC San Diego and Thad, welcome to the program. Hi Marie. It's been said that Duncan Hunter just did the Republican party a huge favor by switching his plea to guilty. Do you agree?

Speaker 3: 05:22 I think so. I think the most likely outcome is that this clears the way for an untainted Republican to capture what should be a Republican safe seat. Remember, this is, this is Trump country in San Diego. This is a district, uh, where the president won in 2016 by almost 15 percentage points. And so the theory goes that really only and indicted or convicted Duncan Hunter could lose and that any other Republican can win this seat just because of this strong party advantage. And we're about to put that theory to the

Speaker 1: 05:57 now Hunter has indicated he's, he is leaving office, but he has not said anything about the timeline. If he resigns, could that trigger a special election?

Speaker 3: 06:08 My understanding is that if he resigns before Friday, uh, that that would trigger a special election, which may or you know, these things are always up in the air, which may be coordinated with the March election. Uh, these provisions about tr what triggers a special election are really designed to not make voters go too long without representation. And so it's the distance in time between, uh, the next scheduled election in which a replacement who would be put in office and the time that someone resigned. So the earlier you resigned, the longer that time, the more of a burden it is potentially on voters and, and the more state law allows, uh, allows the calling of a special election to fill that seat. But I think from some of what he said, he said, you know, his office is going to remain open and continue to serve constituents throughout this term and he will hand it over to his successor. I think what that means is that he's anticipating being in office in until 2020 and relate the end of the day. Whoever wins this race. Finally in November of 2020 is that's what's going to make the difference for who serves, uh, for the next full two year term.

Speaker 1: 07:12 Since he has put in a guilty plea, could Congress kick him out?

Speaker 3: 07:16 Congress could expel them, but they'd have to take affirmative action to do so and you need a two thirds vote. So you'd have to have both parties deciding they wanted to do this. I think now that he is functionally withdrawing from the seat, I think the party is going to focus all their attention on retaking it in 2020. So Republicans expect to win here, but Democrats have clearly coalesced behind a dynamic candidate, a Mar competent jr who ran a much stronger than expected race in 2016 he's been prolific fundraiser and I think Democrats, since there's not that much territory left to take in California, I think they see this as one of the few seats where they'll have a shot and to see if they can use Duncan Hunter story, which in some ways parallels the president Trump's right duck. And Hunter was an early endorser of president Trump. He called his trial a witch trial. Uh, he, you know, he took a very similarly Ignatius approach to his trial, similar to how the president has approached the impeachment Democrats will be trying to make that analogy a and use that to, to turn voters who may be disillusioned with the president, those, those democratic and those independent voters in this district, uh, and turn them in favor of a more competent jar.

Speaker 1: 08:25 Okay. On the Republican side, for the 50th district we have Carl DeMaio, Darryl Eissa and Brian Jones. And then as you say, the Democrat is a Mar camp in a jar. Uh, which of the candidates do you think you'd could benefit most with Duncan Hunter out of the picture?

Speaker 3: 08:40 Well, all three of the Republican candidates clearly benefit because I think whoever emerges out of this three-way fight within the Republican party, between three strong candidates, whoever emerges, will be the presumptive favorite in November because of how strongly red the district is. So I think they're all celebrating and, and a more competent jars, clear street to victory, which would be running against the damage. A Dunkin Hunter has been removed. Who's going to win that while you've got two candidates from outside the district who have, who have, uh, either run for unsuccessful in Carl de Miles's case or in Darryl ISIS case sort of fled, uh, another congressional district. They will be bringing a lot of rate in name recognition, a lot of fundraising ability. Uh, and then you have in former state Senator Brian Jones, who has someone who has a track record in that district of familiarity with those voters.

Speaker 1: 09:27 And meanwhile, you know, you noted that Democrat Amar in new jar, uh, lost by just three percentage points last year are the demographics of the 50 of the changing from the days of the Hunter dynasty.

Speaker 3: 09:39 They're changing, but at the glacial pace, that demographics changed. So this was the most Republican district in the state running into the last election. It no longer is, it's, you know, it's becoming a little bit more diverse, but it's still a demographic playing field that in a normal year with a normal set of candidates would favor Republicans. 20 is not going to be a normal election year. And we've got a really, uh, intriguing and provocative set of candidates who are going to spend, uh, the next year now in a full court press making a pitch to voters.

Speaker 1: 10:12 I've been speaking with professor Thad cows or chair of the political science department at UC San Diego that thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.