Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty last year to using campaign funds for personal expenses and was weeks away from beginning an 11-month prison sentence, received a full pardon Tuesday from President Donald Trump.
Hunter represented the 50th Congressional District, a portion of which stretches into southwestern Riverside County.
According to a statement from the White House, the pardon was issued “at the request of many members of Congress” and was supported by Bradley Smith, former Federal Election Commission chairman.
The White House statement cites Smith as saying the case against Hunter “could have been handled as a civil case via the Federal Election Commission.”
Hunter pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy charge for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with campaign credit cards on family vacations, restaurant and bar tabs, clothes and other frivolous expenses over the course of several years, while falsely stating to his staff that the purchases were campaign-related.
Hunter’s wife and former campaign manager, Margaret, also pleaded guilty last year to misusing campaign funds and was sentenced in August to eight months of home confinement and three years probation. Trump did not pardon her.
Hunter was originally ordered to surrender to authorities on May 29 of this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a delay in his sentence. He was expected to report to prison in January.
During his sentencing hearing in March, Hunter said he took “full responsibility for any dime spent on my campaign by me or anyone else.”
His defense attorney, Paul Pfingst, urged U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan to be lenient on Hunter, noting his service in the Marines, as well his contributions in Congress, arguing that “on balance, Duncan Hunter has contributed much to his country, his constituents and his children.”
The White House also cited Hunter’s military service in announcing the pardon, noting that Hunter “has dedicated much of his adult life to public service” and was inspired to enlist in the Marines following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, serving combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern said during the sentencing hearing that Hunter “abused his position from the very beginning” of his political career, noting that the misuse of campaign funds began in 2009.
Prosecutors argued in court papers that the Hunters were “virtually penniless” and amid dire financial straits, resorted to using campaign credit cards to support “a profligate lifestyle leading to continual debt and an ever-increasing need to find cash to pay bills.”
Despite the family bank account not carrying a positive balance throughout any single month between 2009 and 2017, prosecutors said the family lived extravagantly, racking up thousands on expensive family trips and scores of other improper personal purchases, according to the memorandum.
It was also alleged that Hunter used campaign funds to pursue extramarital affairs and repeatedly used campaign credit cards or sought reimbursement for expenses that included resort hotel rooms, airfare, a skiing trip and Uber rides to and from the homes of five women with whom he had “intimate relationships.”
He also gave his wife a campaign credit card despite her having no official role in the campaign, until he later hired her as campaign manager amid protests from members of his staff, according to the prosecution’s court filings.
Hunter, a Republican who represented California’s 52nd congressional district from 2009-13 and 50th congressional district from 2013-20, had planned to seek another term. He resigned from Congress in January.
He repeatedly and publicly denied wrongdoing and accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office of a politically motivated prosecution. He maintained that two prosecutors on the case attended a La Jolla campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2015, then indicted him two months before the 2018 election due to his public endorsement of Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Amid the charges and public allegations, Hunter was re-elected in November 2018 with 51.7% of the vote, despite being indicted three months prior. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father, who held the congressional seat for 28 years.