Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges they illegally used $250,000 of campaign funds for personal expenses, a development that could cost the GOP his California seat -- but Hunter claims the charges are politically motivated.
Bail was set at $15,000 for the congressman and at $10,000 for his wife after they entered their pleas in federal court.
The two are alleged to have used campaign funds from 2009 to 2016 for everything from family vacations to dentist bills, from video games to tequila-soaked nights out.
The indictment includes a lengthy list of astonishing allegations of using campaign funds for personal items and mischaracterizing them. Much of the spending was allegedly done by Margaret Hunter whose tabs include a total bill of $2,569.96 at Barnes & Noble over several years.
Between 2010 and 2016, the pair allegedly spent a total at $11,375.46 in campaign funds at Costco, primarily for personal items including groceries, toiletries, cosmetics, pet supplies and video games. The Hunters also spent a total of $1,528.68 in campaign funds on video game charges, prosecutors say.
In November 2015, he is alleged to have attempted to justify the use of $14,261.33 of campaign money to pay for a family vacation in Italy by setting up a day tour of a U.S. naval facility. When Navy officials said they could only do the tour on a specific date, Rep. Hunter is alleged to have told his chief of staff “tell the navy to go f--- themselves.”
In March 2016, Hunter allegedly spent $462.46 in funds at a restaurant for a bachelor party -- that bill was for 30 shots of tequila and one steak. This was amid personal financial difficulties for the couple, with the indictment alleging they overdrew their bank account 1,100 times.
But Hunter’s lawyer described the prosecution as "politically motivated" and alleged it is because of Hunter’s early support of President Trump. His lawyers also noted that in 2017, Hunter and his wife repaid the campaign about $60,000.
Hunter has also brushed off the suggestion he would resign.
“I’m not going to resign with a bunch of leftist government folks throwing allegations at me,” he said this week. "There's a trial. This means nothing. The indictment is all they have. They only have what you have now seen. That's it. I've done nothing wrong.”
“One of the pillars of our country since its founding is that those tasked with enforcing the law would do so in an unbiased manner, allowing evidence to dictate how cases should run, with nothing impeding the rule of law,” he said in a separate statement. “Unfortunately, this is not the case today. The fact is that there is a culture operating within our Justice Department that is politically motivated.”
Despite the indictment putting the seat into play in November, Republican leaders seem unwilling to step up and defend him.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., this week called the charges “deeply serious” and said he would be removed from the three House committees on which he sits. Hunter agreed to comply with Ryan's request and step down from his assignments -- avoiding the spectacle of a debate and vote on the House floor.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Ryan should demand Hunter resign.
Roll Call reports that GOP options are limited, and that California Republicans cannot remove his name from the ballot, or pursue write-in campaigns for a general election.
That offers an opening for Democrats, but it is not clear if the scandal will be enough to flip what has been a comfortably Republican seat in recent years. The outlet reported that 62 percent of voters backed a Republican in the primary, compared with just 36 percent who backed Democrats.
But Democrats have publicly expressed hope for their chances.
“I think the Republicans just lost another House seat,” California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman told Roll Call. “Surely the voters of San Diego are not going to elect a crook who’s been indicted.”
Even Hunter’s team indicated in an Aug. 6 letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that they believe the move to bring an indictment now could cost him the seat.
"Because California employs a 'jungle primary' process, an indictment brought just after the June primary but before the general election – which is what we understand the Southern District intends to do – will result in a solidly Republican district being handed to a Democratic candidate who garnered a mere 16 percent of the vote in the primary," his lawyer said.
Hunter's opponent in the general election is 29-year-old Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat who has never held elective office.
Fox News’ William LaJeunesse, Chad Pergram, Paulina Dedaj, Lee Ross and The Associated Press contributed to this report.