California congressman Duncan Hunter pleads not guilty to misuse of campaign funds

A Republican congressman from California and his wife pleaded not guilty on Thursday to misusing $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses and filing false campaign finance records with the Federal Election Commission.

Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, entered their not guilty pleas in federal court in San Diego.

He and his wife are accused of illegally using campaign funds between 2009 and 2016 for family vacations to Italy, Hawaii, Phoenix and Boise, Idaho, prosecutors said. They also allegedly used campaign funds to pay for school tuition, dental work, theater tickets, and domestic and international travel for almost a dozen relatives, according to prosecutors.

The Hunters allegedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on smaller purchases, including fast food, movie tickets, golf outings, video games, coffee, groceries, home utilities and expensive meals, the indictment alleged, according to prosecutors.

To conceal their personal spending, the Hunters mischaracterized the purchases in FEC filings as "campaign travel," "dinner with volunteers/contributors," "toy drives," "teacher/parent and supporter events," and other false descriptions, according to the indictment.

Hunter and his wife stood next to each other in court at a podium as they entered their pleas but rarely looked at each other.

During Thursday's court hearing, prosecutors said Hunter and his wife were living paycheck to paycheck, had few assets and recommended low bond for the couple.

The congressman's bond was set at $15,000 while his wife's bond was set at $10,000.

The couple was ordered to remain in the United States and reside with family members approved by pretrial services. Rep. Duncan was also ordered to surrender his firearms and submit to drug testing.

Hunter and his wife are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 4.

Following his court hearing, Hunter sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, asking to be removed from his committee assignments. Hunter is a member of the House Armed Services, Education, and Transportation committees.

Hunter's letter to Ryan came a day after he said he wouldn't step down from his committee assignments, a House GOP source told ABC News.

Had he not voluntarily stepped aside from his committee assignments, Hunter would have forced House Republicans to vote to remove him from his committees when the House returns in September -- a potentially embarrassing floor vote GOP leaders were hoping to avoid.

Hunter, 41, is a former U.S. Marine who served as an artillery officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was one of the first Republicans in Congress to endorse President Donald Trump's White House bid in 2016.

He left the courthouse Thursday without speaking to reporters gathered outside, trailed by protesters shouting "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

In an interview with ABC affiliate station KGTV in San Diago on Wednesday, ahead of a fishing trip with a veterans' group in California, Hunter dismissed the charges against him as "politically motivated" and said he was not considering ending his re-election campaign.

"This is par for the course. This is modern politics and modern media, mixed in with law enforcement that has a political agenda," he said. "This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats' arm of law enforcement. That's what's happening right now, and it's happening to Trump and it's happening with me."

The House Ethics Committee was also investigating allegations of Hunter's improper use of campaign funds, but announced in March that it would continue to defer to the Department of Justice investigation.

The indictment against Hunter and his wife was announced on Tuesday by Adam Braverman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California appointed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the Trump administration.

Hunter has maintained in the past that he was not aware of the improper spending, and repaid his campaign committee roughly $60,000 to cover the expenses.

Hunter easily finished first in the June primary and established himself as a strong favorite to hold onto California's 50th Congressional District in San Diego and Riverside counties.

Hunter's Democratic opponent in the race, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Obama administration official, immediately seized on Hunter's legal problems, telling reporters outside the courthouse Thursday that Hunter "obviously has a track record for not making right decisions."

"But I want to say thank you for his service to our country, for fighting the wars that we wage abroad so someone like me could even have the luxury to stand here and fight the ones we have at home," said Campa-Najjar. "Congressman Hunter served our country honorably abroad. I just happen to think that that man who served our country never made it home from the battlefield and I think Washington chewed him up and spat him out, and engulfed him in the corruption that has plagued Washington for too long."
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