California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter said Friday he will resign from Congress after the coming holidays, just days after pleading guilty to campaign finance fraud.
“Shortly after the Holidays I will resign from Congress. It has been an honor to serve the people of California’s 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years,” he said in a statement.
Hunter pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiring with his wife, Margaret, to knowingly and willfully convert Hunter’s campaign funds for personal expenditures. He faces a maximum of five years in prison; a maximum $250,000 fine; and a maximum of three years supervised release. His sentence could end up being between eight and 14 months in jail, but ultimately how much time he spends behind bars is up to Judge Thomas Whelan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
Hunter is the second member of Congress facing a federal criminal trial who subsequently pleaded guilty and resigned this year. The other was former Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, who was set to stand trial for insider trading charges. Collins and Hunter were two of President Donald Trump’s earliest supporters in Congress.
Hunter earlier this week changed his not guilty plea to guilty on one count of misusing campaign funds. His trial was scheduled for Jan. 22, in which he faced a 60-count indictment for using over $250,000 in campaign money on personal effects, including bar tabs, video games, golf outings and international trips.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California said the Hunters stole money from the campaign for small scale expenses, including fast food, movie tickets, sneakers, Lego sets, Play-Doh and dog food. They also spent campaign funds on luxury hotels and plane tickets for their family pet rabbits, Eggburt and Cadbury. This occurred while the family was entrenched in debt, according to the federal government.
Prosecutors alleged Hunter pursued a series of intimate personal relationships with congressional staffers and lobbyists and used campaign funds on those endeavors. Three of the five alleged intimate relationships were with lobbyists; the remaining two worked in the House: one in Hunter’s congressional office and one in House leadership.
One of the alleged extramarital affairs involved Individual 16, who began working in Hunter’s congressional office in January of 2015. In June of that year, Hunter and Individual 16 went on a triple date to a Washington bar, H Street Country Club, where he allegedly spent $202 in campaign money on drinks and snacks at the bar, along with a $20 dollar Uber ride.
There was also a recent allegation that he groped a woman, Rory Riley-Topping, when she worked on Capitol Hill. Hunter called the allegation “total baloney.”
It is against House Ethics Committee rules for a member of Congress to engage in a sexual relationship with a subordinate. Former Rep. Katie Hill resigned this year after facing allegations she had a relationship with a staffer.
“Not a single dime of taxpayer money is involved in this,” he told San Diego’s KUSI News Monday. “The plea that I accepted was misuse of my own campaign funds of which I plead guilty to only one count.”
“I did make mistakes,” Hunter acknowledged to KUSI News. “I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money.”
Following Hunter’s guilty plea, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen said Hunter’s case is not about mistakes.
“This is not a case about mismanagement, or sloppy accounting, or ‘mistakes.’ Duncan Hunter intentionally took money that did not belong to him and used it for his own benefit,” Allen said. “For that, he has been held accountable, and we are pleased that today he has taken this first step toward taking responsibility for his crime.”
“It’s been a privilege to serve in Congress for 11 years,” he told KUSI News.
Hunter served California’s 50th District since 2008, when he won the seat previously occupied by his father, Duncan Lee Hunter. His exit means that for the first time in 39 years, the San Diego area district will be represented by someone besides someone named Duncan Hunter. His father was elected to Congress in 1980 after serving in Vietnam.
A crowded field of GOP candidates could emerge since the 50th is a traditionally Republican district. Trump carried the 50th District in northeastern San Diego County by 15 points in 2016 and Hunter won reelection by 3 points in 2018 despite facing the indictment.
At least two GOP challengers had already filed to run against Hunter in 2020. Former Rep. Darrell Issa and former San Diego city councilmember Carl DeMaio, were also reportedly considering bids if Hunter did not run. Issa retired from Congress after narrowly winning reelection in 2016, and DeMaio ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd District in 2014.
Hunter’s 2018 Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, an official in former President Barack Obama’s administration, is running again in 2020. Hunter’s seat is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list, but the race could be further out of Democrats’ reach without the beleaguered Hunter on the ballot.
It’s not clear if any other Democrats will jump into the race now that Hunter is stepping down. Having multiple candidates in both parties could complicate the general election, due to California’s top two primary, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.
Prosecutors alleged Hunter enveloped himself in campaign finance indiscretions shortly after he began his congressional career in January of 2009. Eventually, Hunter and his wife were indicted in August 2018 for their campaign finance transgressions. To conceal their purchases, the Hunters misclassified purchases in their campaign finance records, labeling expenses as “campaign travel” or “dinner with volunteers” in submissions to the Federal Election Commission.
Shortly after he was indicted, Hunter told NBC San Diego that he “never used campaign funds for personal purchases ever.” Hunter described the prosecutors “leftist” and the indictment as a political witch hunt by Democrats. “I’ve done nothing wrong and I say bring the trial now,” he told NBC San Diego at the time.
Republican leaders in the House stripped Hunter of his committee assignments after the indictment was filed. The House Ethics Committee authorized an investigation into him, but deferred to the Department of Justice until their process runs its course, which culminates with Hunter’s March 17 sentencing date. Because of his resignation, the Ethics Committee no longer has jurisdiction over Hunter and will not pursue his matter any further.
The Ethics Committee notified Hunter on Thursday that he should no longer cast votes in the House because of his guilty plea. Hunter voted the day before.
In June, Margaret Hunter entered a guilty plea in the federal campaign finance case against her and her husband. She pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. The plea comes with a sentence of up to five years and a fine of $250,000. The couple is still married, but they live in separate residences, Hunter’s attorney, Paul Pfingst, said.
Hunter is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hunter quit his job as an information technology analyst and joined the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq twice — he was ambushed just five hours into his first tour, and later fought in the first battle of Fallujah — and served one tour in Afghanistan as a reservist.
Katherine Tully-McManus and Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.