SAN DIEGO - Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and his wife Margaret pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges of using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including family vacations, dental bills, theater tickets and international travel for relatives.
During the brief hearing in federal court in San Diego, bond was set at $15,000 for the congressman and $10,000 for his wife. Prosecutors said they did not object to the relatively low bond amount, noting that the couple have few assets and are living "paycheck to paycheck."
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The judge also noted that the pair do not present a flight risk. The pair were given until Tuesday to post the bond amount.
They are both due back in court Sept. 4.
The Hunters were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in San Diego on charges of conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, wire fraud, falsification of records and prohibited use of campaign contributions.
As the Republican congressman arrived at the courthouse in downtown San Diego, he was met with a group of vocal protesters, some of whom shouted "Lock him up," echoing a chant commonly heard from supporters of President Donald Trump in reference to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At least one protester held a sign saying "Crooked Duncan Hunter."
On Wednesday, the 41-year-old Hunter blasted the timing of the indictment, saying the Department of Justice decided to take the action right before the general election in November. Although he represents a solidly conservative district, Democrats have been targeting his seat -- thanks largely to the federal investigation of Hunter.
The congressman called the two-year investigation leading up to the indictment a "witch hunt," saying it was politically motivated. He said he would continue to fight to clear his name.
Federal prosecutors said they identified "scores of instances" between 2009 and 2016 in which the Hunters used campaign funds to pay for "personal expenses that they could not otherwise afford."
Among the personal expenses they allegedly funded with campaign cash were family vacations to locations such as Hawaii and Italy, along with school tuition and smaller purchases such as golf outings, movie tickets, video games, coffee and expensive meals.
The couple allegedly mis-reported 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.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, called the charges against Hunter "deeply serious" and removed him from his committee assignments "pending the resolution of this matter."
Hunter was a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and chairman of its Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, the House Armed Services Committee and Education and the Workforce Committee.
Hunter was elected to Congress in 2008, after his father opted not to seek reelection.
Moments after the Hunters entered their plea, Hunter's opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar appeared in front of the courthouse and spoke to the media.
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“People asked me if he was going to resign, … but I didn’t think he would do that because he has a record of not making good decisions,” Campa-Najjar said. “I’ve been talking to voters all across the district. I encourage you to go everywhere in the district – Escondido, San Marcos and you’ll notice people want real representation for the first time in a long time.”
“I hope to bring national pride, not national shame to this community. Think of the people we’ve had Junior, Duke Cunningham and Jim Bates who have brought national shame,” Campa-Najjar said.