U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said Thursday the indictment against his fellow Republican, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R- Alpine, "smacks of political wrongdoing," and it violates the Department of Justice’s own guidelines to avoid unfair influence over campaigns, according to the eight-term congressman.
“The Department of Justice has guidelines that specifically attempt to stop unfair influence and negative influence over campaigns,” said Issa. “And an accusation with no time to resolve it with a guilty or innocent ruling between now and the election in 80 days is exactly why this is an inappropriate indictment.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney declined to respond. But a former federal prosecutor told NBC 7 the guideline federal prosecutors try to avoid is 60 days before an election, not 80.
Hunter entered a not guilty plea on Thursday to charges of wire fraud, falsification of records, and prohibited use of campaign funds. He and his wife are accused of using more than $250,000 in campaign contributions to pay for family trips to Hawai'i and other locations, golf outings, dental work and a flight for a pet bunny.
The 47-page grand jury indictment details expensive stays at hotels in the Capitol for Hunter and an associate, dining at Mr. A’s and a $14,000 family trip to Italy.
Issa said the timing is inappropriate. Hunter is the incumbent in the 50th Congressional District, a heavily Republican district where he was easily favored to win against challenger Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar. Nationally, Democrats need to gain about 24 seats to take over the majority in the House in November.
Under California state law, Hunter must remain on the ballot, and no other candidates can be added to the November ballot.
“This is a seat, which is not considered to be in play under any ordinary circumstances,” Issa said. “This is a safe Republican seat. And it only is in play because of the actions at this late date by the U.S. Attorney.”
U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman was appointed in November as part of President Donald Trump’s Administration.
Asked why the appointee of a Republican president would be politically motivated to impact an election in favor of an unknown Democrat, Issa clarified he was referring to the Assistant U.S. Attorney who convened the Grand Jury last December “at a time in which Duncan Hunter could have left the ballot and others could have come on,” he said.
“If it was a crime two and a half years ago, why didn’t the U.S. Attorney bring it then?” Issa asked. “What is the justification for waiting? Not until after one election, but just before the second election after Hunter admitted this and he repaid the money.”
Former federal prosecutor Chuck LaBella said the U.S. Attorney's office is not in violation of any federal policies or guidelines aimed at preventing the government from having influence over the outcome of elections.
"You're not supposed to do anything within 60 days of an election," LaBella said. "But, they're not within a 60 day period, so they're not in violation of the policy."
Hunter’s attorney Gregory Vega has noted that two members of the government's prosecution team attended a La Jolla, California, fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Issa, who represents the neighboring 49th district, announced his retirement last January amid a wave of Republican lawmakers calling it quits. That same day, reports surfaced he was mulling a bid in Hunter’s 50th District, a congressional district even more conservative than his own.
Today, Issa squashed that idea saying he has no intention of taking the seat.
“I didn’t retire only to run for office. I could have won reelection in an off-year in my district likely very handily, just based on the normal off-year characteristics. I retired because I believe that 18 years of service was enough, and I wanted to try to do other things while I still had the health to do it,” he said.
Issa won the 49th narrowly by 1,621 votes during his last election. Like many Republicans across the country, he faced backlash against Trump, and felt the impacts of a less conservative district since the last redistricting.
Issa said voters should not be influenced by the indictments, and that Hunter “deserves an opportunity to defend himself and to be tried in a court not in the last days of an election.”
Under the state’s top-two primary, the two candidates who receive the most votes during the primary elections are on the November ballot, regardless of party.
Aimed at reducing partisanship in elections, the rules also prohibit a candidate nominated in the general election from withdrawing from the ballot, for any reason, including death. And the “top-two” state election laws bar anyone else from getting on the ballot should Hunter attempt to withdrawal while he fights his legal battle.
It prevents any write-in votes for any candidate whose name does not already appear on the ballot.
Issa said Thursday he has no intention of running for a Congress he hasn’t left yet, with one exception.
“If the President asked me to be the First Ambassador to Antarctica I would have to consider it. We don’t currently have that posting,” he said. “I would always consider a call from the president to serve. At the same time, I’m positioned quite well to go back to a life I had before I went into public service 18 years ago.”
Republican leadership remains hopeful Hunter can win the election despite the charges. If he resigns once in office, it would trigger a special election.
Or he could remain in office while facing the charges. If he is convicted, and resigns while in office, it would also trigger a special election, according to an election attorney.
If Hunter refuses to resign despite a conviction, he would be removed, and he wouldn’t be the first. Congressman Jim Traficant (D – Ohio) was expelled from the House in 2002 after being convicted on similar corruption charges of taking campaign funds for personal uses.