SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, a leading California Republican, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a single federal charge of conspiring to misuse campaign funds in a corruption case that left his immediate political future unclear.
The felony offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but his attorney has said prosecutors have agreed to recommend significantly less time than that. Sentencing was set for March 17.
Hunter, 42, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran and early supporter of President Donald Trump, had originally pleaded not guilty in the case and insisted he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution.
He appeared on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan in San Diego for a hearing lasting less than 10 minutes, calmly answering: “Guilty,” when the judge asked for his plea to a single count of conspiring to convert campaign funds to personal use.
Pausing outside the courthouse afterward, Hunter, dressed in a dark suit and tie, told a throng of reporters: “I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about.”
Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted in 2018 on charges of misappropriating $250,000 in campaign donations to pay for personal expenses, including their children’s private school tuition, lavish travel, expensive meals at restaurants, groceries and clothing.
Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to misuse campaign funds, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case. She has yet to be sentenced.
Appearing on local television on Monday, Hunter said had decided to plead guilty to spare his family the spectacle of a trial that was scheduled to open next month.
Hunter also indicated, without saying so explicitly, that he would not seek re-election next year to the San Diego congressional seat he first won in 2008, succeeding his father and fellow Republican, Duncan Lee Hunter, who attended Tuesday’s hearing.
“I’m confident that the transition will be a good one. My office will remain open, I’ve got a great staff,” the congressman said on Monday. “We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes the seat next year.”
Hunter said nothing more on Tuesday about his immediate political future or status on Capital Hill. But he plans to “discuss next steps with Republican leadership in DC,” his deputy chief of staff, Michael Harrison, told Reuters by text.
The terms of the plea agreement did not address the issue.
The corruption scandal is seen as giving a boost to Democrats’ bid to seize California’s traditionally Republican 50th Congressional District. Hunter’s 2018 Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Obama administration aide of Mexican and Palestinian heritage, was defeated in last year’s race despite the incumbent’s indictment.
But the dynamics surrounding a guilty plea would presumably play more to Democrats’ favor in 2020. The party already holds a heavy majority of California’s 53 U.S. House of Representatives seats.
Hunter appeared to blame his wife for the scandal in a Fox News interview last year, saying he had given her power of attorney during a 2003 deployment, and that she oversaw his campaign finances.
In televised comments on Monday, he acknowledged he was responsible for accounting for his own campaign funds, and said he hoped his wife would be spared prison for the sake of their three school-aged children.
Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney