Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) announced his resignation from Congress, one month after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to convert campaign funds to personal use, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Hunter’s departure marks the end of a 30-year San Diego County political dynasty, in which either the Congressman or his father represented the district.
Duncan Hunter joined the Marine Corps after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Marines, Hunter was building houses in Idaho when his father, Rep. Ducan L. Hunter, convinced him that his perspective from the current war was desperately needed in Congress.
In 2008, Hunter was elected to succeed his father. He did not face a serious challenge for reelection until 2018, when Democrats targeted his seat in the wake of the criminal charges against him. Hunter’s resignation means that California’s 50th Congressional District will go over a year without representation.
In his two-page letter, Hunter, 43, gave no reason for his resignation. Instead, he offered a list of his accomplishments: “During my time in Congress, I had the privilege of helping thousands of individuals in my district — from making sure veterans received the benefits they earned, to helping Social Security and Medicare recipients cut through red tape, to assisting immigrants seeking legal citizenship, and countless others going up against the IRS, ATF or other government agencies.”
Prosecutors alleged that Hunter and his wife, Margaret, used over $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. The couple had been under scrutiny since April 2016, when the FEC began questioning campaign expenses for video games, private school tuition, oral surgery and a garage door for the Hunter’s home.
Campaign funds were spent to throw a birthday party for the Hunter’s daughter at a high-end hotel and used to pay for a social outing with friends at a French bistro in Washington, D.C.
$1,900.00 of campaign donations were spent to send a family member to a Pittsburgh Steelers game. The couple even spent campaign funds to fly the family’s pet rabbit, Eggburt, cross-country.
The expenditure of campaign funds for personal use is banned by law, to protect against undue influence by donors who might benefit from Congressional action. Prosecutors state that the Hunters concealed the illegal spending by listing it in campaign finance records as donations for military veterans and as legitimate campaign-related expenses.
In June 2019, Margaret, who served as her husband’s campaign manager, plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to convert campaign funds to personal use, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. As part of her plea deal, Margaret agreed to testify against her husband.
Despite claiming to be the victim of a political witch hunt, on December 3, Duncan Hunter also plead guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. Although he continued to maintain his innocence, Hunter stated that he agreed to the deal to save his family, especially his children, from a public trial.
"Whatever my time in custody is, I will take that hit," Hunter told TV station KUSI. "My only hope is that the judge does not sentence my wife to jail. I think my kids need a mom in the home."
Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced on March 17. Federal prosecutors have stated that he will likely face “upwards of 14 months” in federal prison, if the presiding judge accepts the recommendation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The 50th Congressional District is composed of ethnically diverse suburbs at the edge of San Diego, that transition into farming and mountainous areas to the east. The district also includes a small slice of Riverside County.
Republicans hold an 11-point voter registration advantage in the district. Without Hunter on the ballot, the GOP should easily hold the seat.
Three Republicans with strong local name recognition are contending to fill the seat, although there is currently no clear favorite.
Among those seeking to replace Hunter is former Rep. Darrell Issa, the former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who retired in 2018. Hunter’s father recently endorsed him.
Issa won’t have a clear path though. Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, now a local political commentator and radio host; and state Sen. Brian Jones are also running for the seat.
Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA) has decided against calling a special election to fill Hunter’s seat. Newsom’s decision means that Hunter’s district will go without elected representation through 2020.
Under California election rules, the top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.