Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pleaded guilty on Tuesday to misusing campaign funds, marking a major reversal for the lawmaker who for more than a year called the criminal charges brought against him and his wife a “witch hunt” aimed at driving the six-term Republican from office in the Democrat-controlled state.
Appearing in federal court in San Diego on Tuesday morning, Hunter remained mostly quiet during the proceedings.
“I failed to monitor and account for campaign money,” Hunter told reporters following the hearing. “I made mistakes…that’s what today is all about.”
The 42-year-old lawmaker will be sentenced on March 17 and faces up to five years in prison.
Hunter did not answer reporters’ question over whether his guilty plea means he will be stepping down from his congressional seat, saying only that he “will have more statements in the future about the future.”
In an interview on Monday with a local news station, though, Hunter said that he is prepared to go to jail and hinted that he would resign from his post in Congress, although he did not give a timeline for when he might step down.
"I think it's important not to have a public trial for three reasons, and those three reasons are my kids," Hunter told San Diego TV station KUSI. “I think it would be really tough for them.”
He added. “It’s hard enough being the kids of a public figure. I think it’s time for them to live life outside the spotlight.”
His wife Margaret Hunter also was charged in the case and in June accepted a plea deal that called for her to testify against her husband. The couple could have faced decades in prison before the plea deals.
Federal prosecutors said the couple spent more than $250,000 in campaign money for golf outings, family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, tequila shots and airline tickets for their pet rabbit.
Prosecutors also revealed Hunter spent some of the money on romantic relationships with lobbyists and congressional aides.
Until now, Hunter had resisted calls to resign, framing the charges as a political attack by prosecutors sympathetic to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
After his wife agreed to a plea deal, Hunter said: “it’s obvious that the Department of Justice went after her to get to me for political reasons.”
Former federal attorney Jason Forge, who prosecuted California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in 2005 for one of the worst bribery scandals to ever bring down a federal lawmaker, said Hunter’s outlandish denials ran out of gas.
He also was probably running out of money, Forge said. The couple had overdrawn their bank accounts more than 1,000 times, according to prosecutors.
“In terms of evidence against him, I view this as being an inevitable outcome that was apparent from the day the indictment came out with that level of detail,” Forge said. “But looking at it from a political perspective, it would seem to be a shocking result. He couldn't have been more aggressive in his denials.”
Hunter’s departure will mark the end of a political dynasty in Southern California’s most Republican district. He was elected in 2008 after his father represented the district for 28 years.
Duncan Hunter Sr. told Fox News following the hearing on Tuesday that his son needs to speak with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on how they want him to proceed.
Hunter’s plea sets up the prospect of a second special House election in California next year. Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, a rising Democratic star, resigned her Los Angeles-area seat in October after explicit photos of her were posted online.
Hunter narrowly survived a challenge in 2018 from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a political newcomer. The 30-year-old Campa-Najjar is running again and Republican contenders include former Rep. Darrell Issa and radio personality Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman.
In October, former four-term Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York pleaded guilty in an insider trading case, a day after he resigned from Congress. He faces a maximum sentence of about four years in prison.
Fox News’ Lee Ross, Louis Casiano and The Associated Press contributed to this report.