Two months before the start of his federal fraud trial, Congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-50) has dropped three members of his defense team.
In a motion filed Wednesday in federal court, attorney Greg Vega revealed that Hunter had fired him and his two associates just hours earlier. “Defendant Duncan D. Hunter initiated the termination of representation,” Vega told the court.
The legal filing includes no details about why Hunter fired Vega, an experienced and well-regarded defense attorney who formerly served as the head prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Southern California.
Vega declined to comment on his firing. Hunter’s office also did not reply to an email seeking comment for this story.
Vega and his colleagues Ricardo Arias and Philip Adams have represented Hunter since August 2018 when federal prosecutors charged Hunter and his wife Margaret with 60 counts of campaign spending violations, alleging the couple spent more than $250,000 of campaign funds for personal items. Hunter denies those allegations.
Hunter’s decision to fire the three attorneys further complicates the case. Last month, Hunter added veteran criminal defense attorney Paul Pfingst to his legal team. But prosecutors challenged that move, arguing that Pfingst has a conflict-of-interest. Pfingst, a former San Diego County District Attorney, denies the allegation.
Judge Tom Whelan will decide soon if Pfingst can represent Hunter. Whelan will also approve or deny Vega’s request that he and his colleagues at the Seltzer, Caplan law firm be allowed to withdraw from the case.
One legal analyst said Judge Whelan will be mindful that any changes in Hunter’s legal representation could delay the trial.
"Ultimately, the trial schedule lies firmly in the discretion of the judge,” said Carol Lam, former U.S. Attorney for Southern California. “Even apart from Pfingst’s alleged conflict of interest, a big question will be whether Judge Whelan would let Pfingst take over the case this close to trial. Generally, judges tend to take a pretty dim view of defendants trying to change counsel on the eve of trial."
Former federal prosecutor Chuck LaBella said it’s also possible that Judge Whelan will grant attorney Vega’s motion to withdraw, and allow Pfingst to represent Hunter. In that scenario, LaBella said the judge could require Pfingst to be ready for trial in January. LaBella said federal judges generally like to keep trials on schedule, and are hard-pressed to delay those proceedings.
Judge Whelan has previously said he wants Hunter’s trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 22, to be finished before California’s March 3 primary election.