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Rep. Duncan Hunter pleads guilty to misuse of campaign funds, is expected to resign from Congress

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Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to one count of abuse of campaign funds on Tuesday, and is expected to resign from Congress before facing a prison sentence.

Hunter will be sentenced on March 17. Details of the plea agreement were unclear, but Hunter said earlier in the week that he was facing a prison sentence.

Hunter's guilty plea marked the culmination of a three-year investigation, including complex details about the Republican who used more than $ 200,000 in campaign funds to pay for hotel rooms to entertain his mistresses, his children's schooling, transport for a rabbit and others expenses . He and his wife, Margaret, who dealt with his campaign finances, were initially charged with 60 federal counts in August 2018.

Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty to a conspiracy with her husband in June to violate campaign finance laws and agreed to testify against him. She is scheduled to be sentenced in April and is facing up to five years in prison, but is expected to be sentenced to fewer.

The Alpine congressman, who once said the investigation of his campaign finances was fueled by a "fake news" campaign by the media and a "deep state" plot in the federal government, said Monday that he decided to plead guilty and face jail time in an effort to protect his wife and their three children.

"Whatever my time in custody will be, I will take that hit," he told San Diego television station KUSI in an interview broadcast on Monday. “My only hope is that the judge will not convict my wife of imprisonment. I think my children need a mother at home. & # 39;

Hunter was first elected to Congress in 2008 and represents central and northeastern San Diego County and a small part of Riverside County. As soon as Hunter's resignation is official, Gov. Gavin Newsom 14 days to request a special election to fill the seat.

Hunter's decision to resign increases the likelihood that Republicans will hold the seat in November because of the Republican tilt of his 50th Congress District. Upon hearing Hunter's plea to plead guilty, non-partisan analyst David Wasserman immediately changed the ranking of the race from "Lean Republican" to "Solid Republican".

Darry Sragow, publisher of the non-partisan California Target Book, which hinders congress races, points out that the GOP has a registration edge of nearly 13 points in the district.

"Democrats could certainly hold out as long as Duncan Hunter was under a cloud and stood for election," Sragow said. "If the Republicans nominate a viable candidate for Congress, they can be expected to keep the district."

This week's developments mark a dramatic downfall for Hunter, the son of a long-standing congressman and a 42-year-old combat veteran who at one point won re-election with more than 70% of the vote.

Hunter was 3 years old when his father, Duncan Hunter Sr., was first elected to Congress in 1980. Shortly after graduating from San Diego State University in 2001, Hunter was inspired by the September 11 attacks to join from the Marine Corps. He served in Baghdad and fought in the Battle of Fallujah. He was placed in the reserve in 2006, but was recalled in 2007 as an active duty for a tour through Afghanistan.

When his father decided in 2007 to become president instead of looking for another term, Hunter campaigned for his seat and beat a fellow veteran with 56% of the vote. It made him the first war veteran of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan that served in Congress, where Hunter built up a reputation as a defense hawk like his father.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he was strongly opposed to the withdrawal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians in the army, in an interview with NPR at the time the bond between soldiers "is broken if you open up the army for transgender people, for hermaphrodites, for gays and lesbians." He was one of the first members of the House to endorse Donald Trump, and praised the president's announcement that transgender people should no longer serve in any capacity in the army.

Hunter was chairman of the Coastguard and Maritime Transport subcommittee of the House and Infrastructure Commission before being pressured by then-house speaker Paul D. Ryan to resign from all his commission assignments after he was charged.

Hunter & # 39; s use of campaign funds – particularly over $ 1,300 for video game purchases – first caught the attention of the San Diego Union Tribune and federal election officials in 2016.

Hunter blamed his son for those purchases and said the boy had used the wrong credit card to sign up for a recurring purchase. He said he asked for a refund.

Further investigations by the Union Tribune, federal election officials and prosecutors found more unusual spending through the Hunter campaign, including a now infamous cross-country aircraft for the family rabbit – "Eggburt" – and payments to nail studios & for home repairs and on exotic vacations.

Judicial records showed that the Hunters bank account had been exceeded more than 1,100 times and that Margaret Hunter at one point told her husband to buy a pair of Hawaiian shorts that he could not afford with the campaign credit card and claimed that the charge help "injured warriors."

In February 2017, the office of Hunter's campaign treasurer was raided by the FBI. whether campaign finance reports were falsified to block or influence FBI and FBI Ethics Committee & # 39;

In the same year, the family sold their Alpine home and moved in with older Hunter to pay off debts. Hunter has since spent more than $ 800,000 on attorney fees while continuing to confess his innocence. But in the KUSI interview, Hunter admitted that he was mistaken.

"I think it's important that people know I made mistakes," Hunter said. “I have not properly checked or justified my campaign money. I justify my plea with the understanding that I am responsible for my own campaign and my own campaign money. "

There was an increasing drum battle for Hunter to resign instead of dropping a reliable Republican chair into Democratic hands. That argument drew former GOP representative Darrell Issa to the race.

While Hunter & # 39; earns his day in court & # 39 ;, Issa said in September according to NPR, & # 39; the 50th convention district deserves the opportunity to maintain this as a conservative district and frankly to become a member have that can appear and all are commissions. & # 39;

Issa is not the only candidate who is active in the district, but he has significant benefits – nearly two decades represents North San Diego County in Congress, including a four-year stint as chairman of the House Commission for Government Monitoring and Reform, when he was one of the most public faces of Republican efforts to investigate President Obama. In addition, he is worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars and previously spent $ 10 million on self-financing of a failed US senate campaign in 1998.

Another Republican looking for the seat is former San Diego City Councilman and activist Carl DeMaio.

Other candidates in the race are democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who narrowly defeated Hunter in the 2018 elections after he was charged.

Wire reported from Washington and Mehta from Los Angeles.

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