SAN DIEGO/SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter was set to be arraigned on Thursday in federal court in San Diego on charges of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds, in a case that could hand the Trump supporter’s otherwise safe seat to a Democrat.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) speaks at the launch of the Isla Bella, the first container ship to be powered by liquid natural gas, during a nighttime ceremony at General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, California April 18, 2015. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton/File Photo
Hunter is the second Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives to face criminal charges this month. The indictment against him and his wife, Margaret, on Tuesday also came the same day that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of tax and bank fraud, and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
On Wednesday, Hunter stood firm, saying the indictment was politically motivated and repeating his assertion that prosecutors on the case were supporters of failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“There is a culture operating within our Justice Department that is politically motivated,” Hunter said Wednesday in an emailed statement.
“This is evidenced by the fact that after two years of investigating, the Department of Justice decided to take this action right before my election.”
The highly detailed indictment by a grand jury in San Diego alleged that the Hunters used campaign accounts to pay for their children’s private school tuition, lavish travel including a trip to Italy and restaurant meals that frequently cost hundreds of dollars.
It also alleges that the Hunters lied about what they spent the money on, saying that purchases of groceries, restaurant meals and clothing were for charity or for campaign events.
“The Hunters’ improper use of campaign funds for personal expenses occurred despite numerous warnings about the prohibition against using campaign funds for personal expenses and repeated inquiries from Duncan Hunter’s campaign treasurer about questionable purchases,” U.S. attorney Adam Braverman, an interim Trump administration appointee, said in a news release.
Hunter, whose father, Duncan Hunter, Sr., also served in Congress, represents conservative portions of San Diego and Riverside counties in a seat that is generally considered safe for Republicans.
But the Hunters’ legal woes could put the seat in play.
California is key to Democrats’ efforts to wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Trump’s Republicans.
The party added Hunter’s district to its list of targets months ago, and on Wednesday, election handicappers at the Cook Political Report analyzed the district as merely “leaning” Republican, a change from its prior rating of “solid Republican.”
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, whose advice helped Democrat Doug Jones defeat Republican Roy Moore in deep-red Alabama this year, signed on last month to lead the campaign of Hunter’s opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Trippi said he expects the criminal case against Hunter will lead more voters to support Campa-Najjar.
“This is something that is going to hang over him for a long time,” Trippi said, referring to Hunter. “And with that I think a lot more people will be taking a closer look at Ammar.”
Already, Hunter’s standing in Congress has been affected by the case. Late Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Hunter would be removed from his committee assignments until the case has been resolved.
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego, California, and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Robert Birsel