Rep. Duncan Hunter’s wife to change plea in campaign spending fraud case

SAN DIEGO — Rep. Duncan Hunter’s wife, who pleaded not guilty last summer along with her husband to charges of using more then $250,000 in campaign funds for their personal use, is scheduled to appear in San Diego federal court Thursday for a change of plea hearing.

Hunter, 42, and his wife Margaret, 44, are accused in a 60-count indictment of taking money from campaign coffers as if they were personal bank accounts and falsifying Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports to cover their tracks. Both Hunters were slated to go to trial this fall on charges that include conspiracy, wire fraud and falsification of records.

But a federal court calendar released late Wednesday morning shows a change of plea hearing for Margaret Hunter is set for 10 a.m. Thursday. No supplemental documentation was attached, and her attorney, Thomas McNamara, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney who is representing Duncan Hunter, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he was aware of the scheduled hearing but declined to comment on whether it signals a decision by Margaret Hunter to testify against her husband.

Another former federal prosecutor said it almost certainly means Margaret Hunter is cooperating with prosecutors.

“What it normally means is that she and her lawyer have cut a deal to cooperate with the government,” Jerry Coughlan told the U-T. “In return for that, the government will agree to only the charges she pleads guilty to and typically bring to the judge’s attention what she’s done and make a recommendation for leniency. It all depends on what she negotiated. Those are the general parameters, but every case is different.”

The indictment details scores of instances beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, in which the Hunters — who have been married since 1998 and have three children — are accused of illegally using campaign money to pay for such things as family vacations to Italy, Hawaii and Boise, Idaho, school tuition, dental work, theater tickets and smaller purchases, including fast food, tequila shots, golf outings and video games.

The indictment alleges that at one point, Hunter used $600 in campaign cash to fly his pet rabbit to a family vacation.

The Hunters allegedly misreported the expenses on FEC filings, using false descriptions such as “campaign travel,” “toy drives,” “dinner with volunteers/contributors” and “gift cards,” according to federal prosecutors.

Hunter’s reelection campaign issued a statement last year condemning the indictment as politically motivated. He later appeared to blame his wife in a television interview, saying she was in charge of the campaign’s finances.

His campaign blasted the timing of the indictment — about two months before the Nov. 6 general election — saying it “appears to be an effort to derail Congressman Hunter’s re-election” bid.

Voters opted to keep him in office despite the allegations. Hunter was first elected to Congress in 2008, when he won the seat his father held for 14 terms.

If the congressman is convicted, there is no constitutional provision or House rule that explicitly requires him to lose his seat, even if he is sent to prison or unable to vote on behalf of his district.

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