SAN DIEGO -- Rep. Duncan Hunter's wife, who pleaded not guilty last summer along with her husband to charges of using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use, changed her plea to guilty in a hearing Thursday morning.
Attorneys for Margaret read a brief statement outside the courthouse after the hearing. She said in part: “I have fully accepted responsibility for my conduct" and "I understand that there will be more consequences."
She is set be sentenced Sept. 16, when she will face a maximum of five years in jail.
When asked if Margaret will testify against her husband, the attorneys did not respond.
Rep. Hunter has denied all wrongdoing. In a statement, he told FOX 5 in part: "It's obvious that the Department of Justice (DOJ) went after her to get to me for political reasons. As Margaret’s case concludes, she should be left alone."
Margaret agreed to plea guilty to the first count of a 60-count indictment unsealed in August, according to a copy of the plea agreement provided by the Office of the U.S. Attorney Southern District of California. That count charged her with conspiring with Duncan to "knowingly and willfully convert" campaign funds for personal use.
As part of the agreement, the U.S. agrees not to prosecute her on any further charges.
Duncan, 42, and Margaret, 44, were accused in the full 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 showed a change of plea hearing for Margaret Hunter was set for Thursday.
FOX 5 saw Margaret Hunter enter the San Diego federal courthouse shortly before 10 a.m. About a half-hour later, the plea change was announced.
A 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 San Diego Union-Tribune. "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.