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Plea Change In Hunter Corruption Case

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The wife of Congressman Duncan Hunter pleads guilty in the couple’s corruption case, the military grants media access to its border mission in Texas, and San Diego State University plans to reform its scholarship system after millions of dollars were unawarded.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Oh sudden twist and Congressman Duncan Hunter's corruption case, his wife Margaret, changes or plea, what this could mean for hunters. Upcoming trial KPBS travels to Texas to see how the military is being used at the border and how their mission is changing and Sdsu scholarship problem. Millions of dollars were left on the table even as tuition continues to rise. I Mark Sauer the KPBS roundtables starts now.

Speaker 2: 00:28 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:38 welcome to our discussion of the week stop stories. I'm mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today. Reporter Morgan Cook of the San Diego Union Tribune, KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh and report or gay or Gary Robbins also of the Union Tribune.

Speaker 2: 00:54 Okay,

Speaker 1: 00:54 well, making an appearance and Margaret Hunters agreement to plead guilty to broad misuse of campaign funds was Egbert the hunter family rabbit. He enjoyed airplane flights costing hundreds of dollars among the more quirky expenses. Federal prosecutors allege Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife charged to his campaign accounts. It's unclear what sentence Margaret Hunter will receive after agreeing to plead guilty to a single conspiracy count and cooperate with prosecutors, but her husband bounds to fight on toward his federal trial now set for September. And Morgan, your stories alerted the public, uh, years ago to huge sums from campaign donors, the hood, the hunters allegedly a spent illegally. Give us the overview of this case and how you got onto it in the first place.

Speaker 3: 01:38 I got an under this case in April, 2016 came across my desk that the federal election commission had sent a letter to Dunkin Hunter's campaign asking for some more information about some charges is about $1,300, uh, for video games, which is unusual to see 'em on a campaign's financial reports. And so they wanted to know about that. And there was also a charge for what appeared to be his children's private school. So we asked about that. Um, and you know, we, then after that story, we were kind of saying, well, let's just make sure that it's, you know, an isolated thing and there's no other, you know, stuff that we need to ask about sister do it. Yeah. Right. So we started looking back through older financial reports. Nice to just saw some more strange sort of unusual charges like payment to an oral surgeon, payment for a company that fixes and replaces garage doors and just things that you don't really typically see as associated with legitimate campaigns. Right, right. Uh, so we were, you know, we were asking about those and then we sort of zoomed out and said, well, there are also some kind of odd spending patterns that we don't typically see for campaigns, you know, grocery stores, fast food, restaurants, gas stations, um,

Speaker 1: 02:58 mind is what it eventually

Speaker 3: 02:59 got to with the indictment. Then, uh, yeah, well, last, uh, last year in August, he and his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, uh, were indicted on 60 counts a stemming from their alleged misuse of campaign money for a personal benefit.

Speaker 1: 03:17 Wow. And, uh, she's now as part of this plea deal, she's cooperating with Prosser use. That means she might testify against her husband in history.

Speaker 3: 03:24 The agreement does say that she will testify in front of any grand jury, federal jury, you know, uh, trial hearing that prosecutors deem necessary

Speaker 1: 03:34 in her sentence. There's a range there and it's determine what that might be yet.

Speaker 3: 03:38 Alright. Sentencing guidelines, uh, put her at maximum exposure of five years in prison and at $250,000 fine. But you know, depending on the deal, depending on the judges, your determination of what is fair, she could receive a farm. Right, right. So far lighter sentence, but we'll just, we'll see.

Speaker 1: 03:57 All right. We'll set the scene for us there in federal court yesterday on Thursday a Margaret Hunter not wearing a wedding ring, her husband wasn't there. Right,

Speaker 3: 04:04 right. Um, she was alone. He was not there. Uh, she was not wearing a wedding ring. She seemed calm. Um, but you know, couldn't have been an easy day.

Speaker 1: 04:15 Yeah. Yeah. Very rough day. And of course a lot of media attention or has been on this case, certainly since the indictment. And these, these court appearances now could part of the motivation to plead out and know we're speculating here, but there was her husband's interview on Fox, a TV right after the indictment claiming the sheet handled the checkbook since his time in the military. And despite evidence presented a of his license with various women that was spelled out in the charges and all. And he still said, well, she was the one, I didn't do anything wrong. You think that might be part of the moat and motivation to change here?

Speaker 3: 04:46 Um, I don't know what her motivations are, but, uh, if I were in her place, I think I would be motivated by those things. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 04:55 All right. Now we, uh, and I'm going to get to a moment of statement here for, from her in a minute, but I wanted to, uh, to ask you, um, the plea agreement show, she and her husband conspire to spend funds when they knew it was wrong after warnings from campaign treasures. And what's the core of Duncan Hunter's defense going forward?

Speaker 3: 05:12 I do not know that and I am really looking forward to finding out, he has said publicly though he has denied the allegations. He has said he was not involved in any criminal action, you know, any misspending questionable spinning was innocent mistakes and you know that, that the spinning, you know, largely was appropriate.

Speaker 1: 05:34 All right. I did want to get to that statement from, uh, her attorney on her behalf after the court hearing and Thursday, let's hear that.

Speaker 4: 05:42 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 at the entry of the plea, I've taken the first step to face those consequences

Speaker 1: 05:59 and for our radio audience, uh, who was that attorney and he's speaking on her behalf, right? She hasn't spoken Publix

Speaker 3: 06:04 right. Following this. Yeah. Yeah. That was Thomas Mcnamara, her attorney and um, she has not made any public statements at all. She has been very, very quiet until now. And, um, you know, I think that her plea agreement speaks for itself and I think that probably there was a strong sense of responsibility on her part to try to do the right thing by her children and family. And I think that, I believe that, I think that's a step in the direction. Steve.

Speaker 5: 06:35 Yeah, in many ways. I've never covered a federal corruption case here, but I've covered them in Chicago and Gary, Indiana and this, in lot of ways this is kind of par for the course. The feds, it's often very quiet. In federal court, there aren't a lot of trials. The feds were very patient. They have a lot of resources. They take their time. This has been going on since before 2016. Uh, and they, they often line up the rest of the, the defendants in the case to testify against the main defendant, which I guess at this point is going to be Duncan Hunter. So I mean, what do you think he might face now in court? I mean, how is, how is this case going to play out?

Speaker 3: 07:13 Um, my understanding so far is that this can complicate things, uh, for him because she's pleaded to account of conspiracy with the names him as her Coken spirit or so that kind of, and, and also with the, um, her agreement to cooperate, she has agreed to testify. So, um, yeah, I think that it might, it might complicate things.

Speaker 1: 07:39 Well, that segues nicely. Thank you. Into A, we do have a statement here, congressman hunter, of course, he's a republican staunch supporter of Donald Trump. He issued this statement following the, his wife's play do not have the full details of Margaret's case, but it's obvious to, department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons. As Margaret's case concludes, she should be left alone. I'm the congressman. This is my campaign. Any further attention on the issue should be directed solely at me in the statement and went on to repeat his prior claims. Prosecutors in this case are politically biased. Criminal investigation was politically motivated. The matter should have been handled by the federal election commission, not the DOJ. Uh, so that was his, uh, his statement that was put out. Um, do we know Morgan, anything about the couple's marriage at this point? A strange divorced together?

Speaker 3: 08:25 We do not know. I have not seen, uh, you know, record of a divorce proceeding and I don't know. Okay, great. Is it possible that she'll get off without any jail time at all and based on the amount of cooperation she's providing here, the judge will have a lot of discretion, you know, and people have said to me, you know, the possibility might exist for home detention, um, or, or some other like much lighter form of, uh, I guess punishment and he will.

Speaker 1: 08:57 So that all remains to be seen. No, Duncan Hunter, he was stripped of his house committee seats last year in the early one, reelection in November on a very conservative district that went for Donald Trump heavily in 2016. If he's convicted or, or pleads out now, how would he be replaced? What's the mechanism or do we know at this time is that set?

Speaker 3: 09:16 We do not know at this time. There's a lot of things that that could happen. So if he pleads out, you know, and it would probably come, typically they come with a, um, an agreement to resign from office.

Speaker 1: 09:29 So there'd be a special election even if you're close to the next general election. Primary,

Speaker 3: 09:35 I think, I mean, I know that there would be a special election depending on when it happened,

Speaker 5: 09:40 so I would have seen that the clock has got to be taking on Duncan Hunter, you know, that if he's going to at some point plead out in this, among the things that he they'll want him to do is probably plead to a felony. So he can't run again as a congressman, but also that he would resign his seat. So it's, he's going to have to do something between now and that primary election because if he loses that election and he's no longer a congressman, he loses a tremendous amount of leverage.

Speaker 1: 10:06 Alright. So, yeah, the time is ticking. Obviously the, the pressure is much greater now, as we've said with, with this plea change right from his wife. One last question before we leave this segment. Um, Duncan Hunter's next court date. What's the timetable there?

Speaker 3: 10:19 Um, he has a hearing scheduled for July 1st. Um, it's a hearing for motions and eliminate where they sort of um, you know, try to get the judge to make decisions about whether something can be entered into evidence and things like,

Speaker 1: 10:33 okay, we'll certainly be following up with that and watching that story. Well we are going to move on prison and Trump's decision last fall, the police, thousands of US troops at the southern border was described as a stunt in a waste by critics in the ensuing months. Trump, I'm sorry, troops have been decidedly low profile and carrying out their non combat mission. And Steve, you were in El Paso, Texas assessing this situation. This, we start with how many troops are along the border? What sort of enforcement work are they doing? Well,

Speaker 5: 11:00 so we think there are about 4,000 right now, which is, Eh, that number is starting to shrink. It's, it's gone down. The reason why we went to El Paso is we've been covering this since October, but the last time we've actually been able to see troops and talk to them directly. It was really since before Christmas. So when they offered to allow us to go and actually talk directly with the leaders at army north and some of the troops along the border, we decided, yeah, well every, we have to go to El Paso, Texas. That's what we're going to go. El Paso is nicest time of year, a little warm, warm. It's a little warm. It's very sunny. It's not unlike San Diego in some ways.

Speaker 1: 11:33 Yeah, I made a little warmer. Uh, you interviewed the Task Force commanders there in El Paso, how they characterize the mission for the troops.

Speaker 5: 11:40 So w the most high profile thing that they've been doing is laying of the concertina wire along the border. That's been the most visible thing, but that mission is wrapped up. So now the bulk of the troops that are still there, but 1200 of them operating these mobile surveillance cameras, they're basically these trucks that are provided by the border patrol that overlook the border. Um, so you know, there've been some incidents, um, since uh, usually about one or they used to have about one or two contacts a week between migrants and members of the, of the military. Uh, according to their, their commanders. It's mostly people looking for water or they're looking for the border patrol and they're looking to turn themselves in because they're asylum seekers.

Speaker 1: 12:23 All right. We do have some sound here from a brigadier general, uh, Walter, uh, doesn't he doesn't he? I hope I'm saying that right. Thank you. He described how this mission compares to others in his army career. Let's hear that.

Speaker 6: 12:36 I'm a veteran of three combat tours and have seen soldiers and marines conducting lots of missions and lots of different places. But, um, I'm just as proud of what our soldiers and Marines are doing here and this mission, this mission set, the impact that they're having on a day to day basis in the partnership, the great partnership that were established that we have established with CVP as any mission that I've ever been involved in at 29 plus years in the army.

Speaker 1: 13:04 Well, that sounds like the good soldier talking. Right,

Speaker 5: 13:06 exactly. Uh, and uh, they, they want to stress that this is not, the military has mentioned that they're here to support the, the border patrol. They would never, or some of the statistics since they've been there in a starting in October, they've been involved in helping with the apprehension of 13,000 migrants. They've also helped with the seizure of 3000 pounds of marijuana, which is a decent number though. If you put that in context, the, uh, uh, uh, customs and border protection since the beginning of the year 593,000 people have been detained and they seize on average about 5,000 pounds of Nocari narcotics every month. So it's a very small portion of what is a, what is a much larger issue. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 13:54 Right. And you a chance to hear from the troops there how they feel about this sort of duty.

Speaker 5: 13:58 Well, I mean they say they're fine with it. At least the ones that we were able to talk to. Um, they're the ones who are, the people who were in El Paso right now are from Fort Lewis mcchord right outside of Washington. They, uh, they're in artillery company. They were practicing on Howlett serve before they came there. So this is very different from what they would normally be doing. Um, they're fine with it. They, they, uh, um, the military wants to stress that there, they don't come into close contact with migrants very often. In fact, uh, uh, when I were talking to some of the folks that were doing this, they were saying that when they're monitoring these cameras, they often can't tell whether or not it's a person they're looking at or a cow. They're, that's far away. They're that far away. Right. And I think that seems it has really been the intent of the military. They don't want to be in that kind of close contact. They don't want to be on the front lines.

Speaker 1: 14:44 Right now, a relatively few encounters is you're saying, um, but there were some notable incidents that you've

Speaker 5: 14:51 no, there are. So, uh, some of the incidents include a, there was a marine in Calexico who discharged his weapon that's still under investigation. Uh, two soldiers outside of Clint Texas, um, were briefly detained by the Mexican military. They had, they believe that the soldiers had crossed over the border into Mexico. Turned out that that was not true. And there was an incident in Yuma, Arizona where, um, uh, some members of the military saw someone what they thought was pointing a weapon at them and they were eventually arrested by the Yuma County sheriff's office.

Speaker 1: 15:25 Okay. But some low level stuff relatively considering that there's thousands of folks along

Speaker 5: 15:29 and the amount of troops yet in the, yeah,

Speaker 1: 15:31 no potential. Now tell us about El Paso. You spoke with some folks there. What do they say about the military and the mission and the mission there? And they're in their backyard.

Speaker 5: 15:38 So El Paso is a military town, much like San Diego, they have, this is the home of Fort Bliss. So there is a real understanding of like, you know, the military is role, um, because they had been so out of the spotlight. So many behind the scenes. It's out. I would say there is even more focus on, on the border in El Paso where they're right across the border from Juarez even more than San Diego and Tijuana, they, El Paso was very dependent on the, uh, the Mexican economy. So there's a lot, a tremendous amount of focus, but right now the military isn't taking the brunt of the criticism and there is a lot of criticism in El Paso

Speaker 1: 16:14 and that brings us to, uh, the changing mission though it could be evolving now as we move forward. Right. The mission for the military,

Speaker 5: 16:21 as I mentioned, the numbers seem to have been going down over, over the last few months. Um, but they're set to, to ramp up again. The military since Shanahan has taken over as acting defense, uh, uh, had a secretary, um, he's agreed to build six soft sided shelters, the house migrants, um, there are also going to be transporting migrants and asylum seekers and they're also going to do food service and things like that. So that will bring them in much more close proximity.

Speaker 1: 16:48 And of course we've seen news reports here about conditions in, in holding camps. Uh, we've had news of six, a migrant children, five from Guatemala, one from El Salvador dying in federal custody since September might the military a presence, uh, you know, impact this and what some of the critics are saying about the conditions in those camps.

Speaker 5: 17:07 Again, uh, even though it looks like the mission is beginning to ramp up a little bit more, um, they, there, we, we know that there are our Jag officers that are going to be involved in immigration court. There, there are medics that have been involved, but the military is still very reticent to become directly involved with migrants along the border. So the border patrol is still going to be, the, are going to be the people who are taking the lead here for most of this.

Speaker 1: 17:35 All right, well with the numbers coming, as you, as you note from most triangle countries in Central America to our border and across the southern border, this is certainly something to keep, uh, keep an eye on in their, in their engagement. All right, I'm going to move on. As good story will live in. Well, we live in a time many graduates

Speaker 7: 17:50 stagger under heavy student loans and presidential candidates push free college tuition. So it's more than a little curious when $20 million in scholarship money is left on the table. But that's what happened at San Diego State University over the past decade. And Gary, a fascinating story. Start with the funds themselves. Where does this money come from in the first place? Is that we're talking about San Diego State, uh, scholarships. This is money that is obtained by the San Diego State and managed by, and there's a lot of scholarships all over the country, but this is just the university and it has about 1100 named scholarships. And over the past decade, the university has given, it had $63 million to give away, but it only gave away $43 million. So literally there was $20 million I could have gone to, to students that was left on the table. And to be, to be clear, Sdsu does handle thousands of scholarships to tens of millions of dollars as you just noted.

Speaker 7: 18:41 So, but there a far cry from getting everything out the door. There were just kind of astonishing. While there are several problems, um, about 15 years ago, they created their own homegrown system for managing all this and getting it out to people publicizing it. It worked for awhile, but it no longer works. There really hasn't been updated in a fast way. It's not a system for modern scholarships. Um, so if you're a student trying to figure it out or their parent trying to help them, it's a very confusing system. It doesn't have complete information. It asks people to do things they shouldn't do. For example, you would have to apply for every single scholarship you wanted rather than just making one application, which would match you up with everything that, uh, for what you might be, um, uh, uh, eligible. So the system is antiquated.

Speaker 7: 19:26 Um, it's been this way for a long time. This precedes a new president. Um, um, uh, della dilatory, but they began to notice the problem really in 2017 after a year in which they only gave away 60% of the money that they had available that year. So only six out of every $10 even though the ut and stories or in papers across the country and other news outlets are writing about tuition costs, the staggering debt, everything we talked about in the open, I think it goes back to something Morgan and I were talking about earlier today that you get the feeling that they didn't think anybody was watching or would watch or take a look at what was happening. It was just negligence and a lot of ways, and when you talk to people about it, they said, yeah, we could have given more away. But you know, no one was cracking down.

Speaker 7: 20:08 This goes back to Elliot Hershman's administration and then into Sally, a Roush two previous presidents has been here a year this month. She's come in and started to crack heads about it. I spoke to her yesterday and she said she was meeting with her deans and was going to put a fire in their belly. I'm already, they have increased some of the, uh, the money, but they're still way away from where they need to be or it, before I get to a, we're going to have a, a, a word here from, from the president dilatory before it get to that I should point on KPBS broadcasting license is held by San Diego State University. So let's hear from, uh, from the president, the current president regarding this, the CSU

Speaker 3: 20:48 system is probably one of the most affordable systems are, our average debt is around $19,000 compared to the national debt level, which is, you know, over $37,000 for students. But I think for example, when we look at cost of attendance, probably one of the biggest areas for our students is housing. And that's an area that I really want to partner with the city about because I think for, for campuses like San Diego State or San Francisco State, the cost of attendance is largely driven, not so much, but by, by tuition, but food and shelter as well as costs of textbooks.

Speaker 8: 21:25 Okay.

Speaker 7: 21:26 All right. She's a sliding a little bit off the point there in that particularly interviewing or something else that she did that a lot of people do. They say, well we're among the lowest when it comes to debt. Well the reality is that the average undergraduate who comes out of here with a degree, oh, is about $15,000. That means that's about $160 a month payment. It is not insignificant. Most people are coming out with entry level jobs. So that can be a real tremendous financial burden for someone just starting their life. Really the focus should be on how do we ensure that they have less debt coming out of college. And part of that is making sure that the scholarships are given away. What if they're not Morgan? Well, what if one year they get money for scholarships and they don't give it away? Does it go away?

Speaker 7: 22:07 Is it like a use it or lose it kind of. Most of it is, most of it stays with them. Okay. But this is where our problem can accrete. Um, if they're not continuing to pay attention, like they didn't give something away for say for a couple of years, maybe they lose track of it. We've noticed that what they're doing now is going back and looking at all their money. Are they accounting for all of it? Do they know where it all is? Some of the things they found is that they have a lot of accounts and which particular scholarships don't have enough money or they didn't modernize the criteria of the scholarship so that it would be that a large number are reasonable number of people would be eligible for this kind of money. Right. So yeah.

Speaker 3: 22:42 Is it all sitting there in an endowment to be used at some other time or is this balancing the books somewhere else?

Speaker 7: 22:48 Well, I think it's a combination of it. When, if you take all of the money, some portion of it is just me giving you cash. It comes from donors. Other money is essentially that, but it goes into endowment funds. So they try to earn interest too to increase it and keep it going for long periods of time. Uh, but the $20 million doesn't go away. It simply hasn't been spent. They, they have a lot of money still to give away. I think probably the most damaging part here beyond students is a message it sends to donors. So if I'm giving you money, you're, you know, they had a 10 year campaign, they raised $800 million and they're at the University of saying we need money for scholarships. But if you give it to them and then they don't donate it to, to students and get most of it out there, then donors may go, wait a minute, you know, should I really be donating here?

Speaker 7: 23:33 We saw plenty of other places for people with guns to donate their money if they wish to. It's a fixable problem, right? You know, they are purchasing a new system that they're going to install. Um, it's used elsewhere in the CSU. The problem is that there's not one good national database that's updated all the time that tells you how much, what percent of this money is typically given away by all colleges and universities. It's a piece of consumer information that is missing. So if you're going to apply here is, is this school better than San Marcos or long beach or Fullerton? Parents need to know that because they're doing most of the decision making about money. Well, we've got a little time left, but you interviewed experts in the administration of college scholarship money. And what did they say about the Sdsu situation? Um, they said that there is no reason that they can't give away 100 million, excuse me, 100%.

Speaker 7: 24:23 So let's say for example, I offer Morgan a scholarship. You know, we want her to come, but then she at the last minute, it doesn't come. What they need to do then is go like, well then I'm going to give them money to you because you are qualified as well. So one of the things I kept hearing was that they need to really focus in on seeing where the money's going. Are people checking off the boxes in every school and every department, because the internal papers we saw said that this is a problem across the university. It's not in one place. So there's money, they just need to be more diligent about making sure that it in fact gets reviewed and gets handed out. All right, last question. You must have gotten some response from parents and students that I imagined this kind of frost people a little bit.

Speaker 7: 25:04 It did. Most of it came digitally online. Um, there's a great deal of love in this county for San Diego State University and well, so we'd help build this county, but there was disappointment in a lot of the emails saying, you know, we trusted you with our money. Our kids need that money. What are you going to do about this? This doesn't sound like what you've been telling us. So it would probably will have the, I mean, Delatorre says we are going to fix this and she's moving to do it. Well, we'll keep watching and that's a a big go hot seat to be answered really well. That does wrap up another week of stories that the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Morgan Cook of the San Diego Union Tribune. Steve Walsh of KPBS news and Gary Robbins of the San Diego Union Tribune. And a reminder, all the stories we discussed today are available on our website, kpbs.org I mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next week on the round table.

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KPBS Roundtable

Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.