California Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds and could face up to five years in prison when he is sentenced in March.
The change of plea was a stunning shift for the six-term congressman, who spent the last two years denying wrongdoing, shifting blame to his wife, Margaret Hunter, and claiming he was the victim of a political witch hunt.
Duncan Hunter, 42, who was originally charged with 60 counts and could have faced up to decades in prison before the plea deal, said he will accept whatever sentence the judge gives, which could be up to five years or lessened to probation, a fine, house arrest or even community service.
The congressman pleaded guilty to misusing $150,000 in campaign funds for his own personal expenses and acknowledged the finance violations in a brief statement on the steps outside the courthouse before walking away without taking questions.
"I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about. So, that being said, I’ll have more statements in the future about the future," Hunter said.
Prosecutors said his actions were not about mismanagement but were intentional.
"This is not a case about mismanagement or accounting errors or mistakes. Duncan Hunter intentionally took money that did not belong to him and he used it for his own benefit. For that, he has been held accountable," U.S. Assistant Attorney Emily Allen said.
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.
In court Tuesday, Judge Thomas Whelan outlined two specific examples of campaign finance misuse -- one in August 2011 when he spent $511.03 on his daughter's birthday at the Hotel Del Coronado and a second instance on June 2016 when he spent $409.49 at a bistro in Washington, D.C.
The plea deal showed dozens of violations between 2010 and 2016.
Margaret Hunter -- who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and, as part of her plea deal, agreed to testify against her husband -- faces up to five years in prison.
After entering a guilty plea, Duncan Hunter may be able to avoid a trial that was set to begin on Jan. 22, 2020 after being postponed. His lawyer Paul Pfingst told NBC 7 Duncan Hunter wanted to spare his three children the publicity of a trial.
He 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.
Duncan 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.
An early supporter of President Donald Trump, Duncan Hunter was narrowly re-elected last year after being indicted and was campaigning for a seventh term next year.
U.S. Attorney Phil Halpern said the plea deal was likely the end of a family political dynasty, though his resignation was not a term of the plea deal.
"Today’s plea is to the major count of the indictment and effectively puts an end to his political career. Rather than re-election, Mr. Hunter now faces resignation, disgrace and imprisonment,”
The congressman previously indicated he would leave office but did not say when.
Hunter’s departure would mark the end a nearly half-century run in the district for his family. 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.