SAN DIEGO — Indicted six-term GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter has held steadfast to his contention that a corruption case against him is the result of a political witch hunt.
But that argument got tougher Thursday for the former Marine and close ally of President Donald Trump after his wife, who worked as his campaign manager, pleaded guilty to a single corruption count and acknowledged being a co-conspirator with her husband in spending more than $200,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses.
Margaret Hunter accepted a plea deal that calls for 59 charges to be dismissed in exchange for her testimony, full cooperation with prosecutors and other concessions. The conspiracy charge to which she pleaded includes all the allegations contained in the 60-count indictment.
"The walls were closing in on him before, now this just makes it more claustrophobic," said Jason Forge, a former federal attorney who prosecuted California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in 2005 for one of the worst bribery scandals to ever bring down a federal lawmaker.
Rep. Hunter "has fewer and fewer options. It's not just his campaign manager. It's his campaign manager and his wife," Forge said.
Margaret Hunter detailed in her plea agreement how she and her husband knowingly used the campaign's credit card for six years to bankroll trips to Italy, Las Vegas and Disneyland.
She said other expenses charged on the card included $399 for zip lining for Rep. Hunter and two of his three children; $500 in airline travel expenses for their pet bunny, Eggburt; and $351 for a family lunch in connection with a child's Irish dance competition.
The plea agreement describes a couple perpetually in debt, yet footing the bill for dinners with friends and private school tuition for their children.
They charged more than $500 on the card to celebrate their son's birthday at historic Hotel del Coronado and then told the campaign treasurer the charges were "campaign related," according to her plea agreement.
Rep. Hunter, who represents Southern California's most Republican congressional district, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press that he's been politically targeted by federal prosecutors. After he was indicted last year, he referred to the Justice Department as "the Democrats' arm of law enforcement."
He said Thursday that the case should have been handled by the Federal Election Commission and alleged U.S. prosecutors indicted him and his wife ahead of the November elections “to inflict as much political damage as possible in hopes of picking up a congressional seat.”
"It was politically motivated at the beginning, it remains politically motivated now," he said.
Hunter won re-election despite the indictment. Experts say the corruption case may not be as easy to win, given the additional evidence his wife is providing and her possible testimony.
His argument of being targeted for political reasons also does not stand, they say, because the U.S. Justice Department is overseen by a Republican attorney general who was appointed by Trump.
"When neither the facts nor the law is on your side, you attack the opposing counsel," election law attorney Fred Woocher said. "That seems like the strategy here. Maybe he'll find a juror amenable to some conspiracy theory."
The congressman's attorney, Gregory Vega, has asked for two assistant U.S. attorneys to be recused after they went to a fundraising event for then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while the congressman was being investigated. However, the U.S. Secret Service told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the agency had requested their presence as routine protocol and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California reviewed the situation last year and determined there was no conflict.
According to the plea agreement, the couple engaged in more than 30 illegal transactions totaling more than $200,000 between 2010 and 2016.
Duncan Hunter's chief of staff and campaign treasurer repeatedly warned that it was improper to use campaign cash for personal expenses, according to his wife's plea agreement.
They also are accused of trying to conceal the illegal spending in federal campaign finance reports. Duncan Hunter's lawyers said in 2017 that the couple repaid the campaign about $60,000.
Prosecutors say the conspiracy was set up in such a way that Hunter and his wife could spend money without having to inform each other. Hunter's wife hid purchases "for items like school lunches" while the congressman concealed spending to "facilitate certain personal relationships with others."
That is an apparent veiled reference to alleged infidelities Hunter's lawyer, Vega, alluded to in an August letter to the Justice Department urging prosecutors to delay any action until after the election. He wrote that "while there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence, the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity."
The congressman has suggested his wife was to blame for any misuse of funds.
In an interview with Fox News last year, Rep. Hunter said his campaign made mistakes, that he gave his wife power of attorney when he deployed to Iraq in 2003, and that she handled his finances during his last five terms in office.
In a statement read by her attorney, Margaret Hunter said Thursday that she accepts full responsibility for her actions and "is deeply remorseful."
"I understand there will be more consequences stemming from my actions but as demonstrated this morning with the entry of the plea, I've taken the first step to facing those consequences," she said.
Hunter’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 10, one week before his wife’s sentencing.