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Duncan Hunter has a new lawyer for federal criminal trial

California Republican adds former San Diego County DA to fight campaign finance charges

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., added a new attorney to his legal team. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., added a new attorney to his legal team. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Duncan Hunter has added a former San Diego County district attorney to his legal team for his upcoming criminal trial on campaign finance charges, but the federal government is challenging whether the attorney can represent the California Republican.

Paul Pfingst, of the law firm Higgs Fletcher & Mack, said his experience as a district attorney brings the personal experience of running a campaign to Hunter’s legal defense team comprised of five total attorneys.

[Rep. Duncan Hunter has almost depleted his legal expense fund]

“I’m reasonably well known around these parts for trial work but also I’ve been a candidate before,” Pfingst said in a phone interview with CQ Roll Call. “I’ve been a candidate and I understand running campaigns and what’s important in a campaign and I’ve had to comply with various campaign rules and so on in the past, so I think that adds an extra dimension in explaining a lot of what was happening.”

The addition of Pfingst to the legal team was previously reported Monday by the San Diego NBC News affiliate, NBC 7.

Hunter faced a 60-count indictment that names his wife Margaret, which alleges they used over $250,000 in campaign funds for their personal use, including travel, bar tabs, golf outings and video games. The trial is scheduled for Jan. 22 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

Federal prosecutors are challenging whether Pfingst can represent Hunter because John Rice, a partner at the same law firm as Pfingst, represented three witnesses who testified before the grand jury in Hunter’s case.

“The government’s challenging me staying on the case,” Pfingst said. “They’re saying that one of my partners represented some witnesses before the grand jury and saying that that presents a conflict that my client, Duncan, can’t waive.”

Pfingst expects he will be allowed to remain as Hunter’s lawyer at trial. He and Gregory Vega of Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek would be the two primary attorneys litigating the case. Hunter, who was indicted in August of 2018, has paid $41,000 to Vega’s firm. Vega is a former U.S. attorney.

If he is permitted to stay on the trial, Pfingst said it is always difficult to defend a client against the government, whether it be state or federal.

“There’s no such thing as an easy-to-defend case when you’re accused. No such thing,” he said. “I’ve never met an easy-to-defend case when the U.S. government or even the state of California prosecutes somebody.”

Pfingst had his own financial issues when he held office in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times, running up $70,000 in campaign debt in his run for San Diego County DA, despite a local ordinance prohibiting deficit campaign spending.

Still, Pfingst had a distinguished career in law enforcement, including a national award from the U.S. attorney general. He also was the lead attorney for California physicians in the national breast implant litigation. 

A U.S. attorney assigned to Hunter’s case did not respond to a request for comment. Hunter’s office did not return a request for comment. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when the trial is scheduled to begin. 

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