California Rep. Duncan Hunter said he plans to plead guilty to misusing campaign funds and is prepared to go to jail, a stunning turn of events for the six-term Republican who had steadfastly denied wrongdoing and claimed he was the victim of a political witch hunt.
Duncan Hunter’s attorneys filed for a change of plea hearing, which Judge Thomas Whelan set for Tuesday at 10 a.m. in a federal courtroom in San Diego.
Hunter wants to avoid a trial and spare his three children from the ensuing publicity, his lawyer Paul Pfingst told NBC 7.
The congressman, who was re-elected last year after being indicted and was campaigning for a seventh term next year, indicated he will leave office but did not say when.
An early supporter of President Donald Trump, Hunter said he will plead guilty to one count of misuse of campaign funds. Federal prosecutors charged he and his wife with 60 criminal counts, saying they spent more than $250,000 in campaign money for golf outings, plane tickets and a family vacation to Italy. They also said the money went to household items and airline tickets for their pet rabbit.
Prosecutors revealed salacious details about the congressman's lifestyle, saying some money was used by Hunter to further romantic relationships with lobbyists and congressional aides.
Margaret Hunter has already pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and, as part of her plea deal, has agreed to testify against her husband.
Duncan Hunter, 42, said he will accept whatever sentence the judge gives. The couple could have faced decades in prison before the plea deals. His wife faces up to five years in prison.
Hunter’s trial was originally set for October 2019, but Whelan rescheduled for Jan. 22, 2020. It is unclear how Tuesday’s change of plea will impact the upcoming trial.
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If Duncan Hunter is convicted of conspiracy, he faces eight to 14 months in prison; however, Whelan is not bound by those guidelines when sentencing.
"He's got to take responsibility for what he did," Former U.S. Attorney Chuck LaBella said. "He's got to admit what he did and that he knew what he did."
Hunter's sentence could be lessened to probation, a fine, house arrest or even community service, LaBella said the chances of incarceration were likely.
Hunter represents the 50th Congressional District, which covers eastern San Diego County and a small part of Riverside County. It is the most Republican district in Southern California, an area now nearly devoid of GOP representation.
Hunter narrowly survived a challenge in 2018 from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a political unknown. The 30-year-old Campa-Najjar is running again and Republican contenders include former Rep. Darrell Issa and radio personality Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman.
All three applauded Hunter’s decision to plead guilty.
“What it shows is that members of Congress are going to be subjected to the same laws and penalties as the rest of us,” DeMaio told NBC 7. “In this case, there’s going to be accountability and it’s a tragedy. I feel sorry for the Hunter family.”
Hunter is the second Republican congressman this year to plead guilty to federal charges. In October, former four-term Rep. Chris Collins of New York pleaded guilty in an insider trading case and resigned. He faces a maximum sentence of about four years in prison.
Hunter’s departure will mark the end of a political dynasty in which he and his father represented the district for nearly 40 years. Duncan Hunter Sr. was elected to the seat in 1980 and held it until his son won in 2008.
Until now, Hunter had resisted calls to resign, calling the charges a politically motivated attempt to drive him from office in a state where Democrats are in the majority. Following his indictment in August 2018 he said the charges were brought by prosecutors who attended a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.
After his wife agreed to a plea deal, Hunter said “it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”
Hunter was the first Marine combat veteran elected to Congress after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he will continue to fight for veterans, but he did not say in what capacity.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.