Congress

Appeals court will hear Rep. Duncan Hunter’s argument, jeopardizing January trial date

California Republican is accused of spending more than $250,000 in campaign money on partying, vacations, personal expenses

The federal trial of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., could be pushed back even further after a federal appeals panel in California agreed to hear briefs on his case. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal appeals court agreed Wednesday to hear Rep. Duncan Hunter’s argument to dismiss the corruption case against him, potentially stalling the start of his trial slated for January 2020.

A three-judge panel at the U.S. Appeals Court for the 9th Circuit will hear briefs in December from Hunter’s defense team and the federal prosecutors in San Diego and will decide whether prosecutors violated the California Republican’s rights under the Constitution’s Speech and Debate clause, multiple outlets in Southern California reported.

The Speech and Debate clause prohibits the government from prosecuting lawmakers for “legislative acts.”

Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted on 60 charges in August of last year for spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, including foreign travel, children’s school tuition and theater tickets, and for filing false campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission.

Margaret Hunter has since pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds that could result in her spending five years in prison and incurring a $250,000 fine.

The congressman has pleaded not guilty.

The trial was originally scheduled to begin earlier this month, but was pushed back in August to let the separate appeals process play out.

Two former federal prosecutors in San Diego told NBC San Diego that the 9th Circuit agreeing to hear Duncan’s appeal could delay the start of the trial even further, until after the March 2020 California primaries.

One former prosecutor, Carol Lam, told the news station that the start of the trial could be pushed off as far as 18 months, well past the end of the 2020 election cycle.

Hunter is running in California’s 50th District for a sixth term representing the inland portion of San Diego County, a battleground district for the 2020 elections.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race for California’s 50th District Leans Republican.

Hunter is already facing five Republican challengers, including 2014 congressional candidate and conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio. Former Rep. Darrell Issa, who retired after 18 years representing San Diego County in an adjacent district, is expected to announce on Thursday that he is jumping into the primary race against Hunter as well.

Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who lost to Hunter by less than 4 percentage points in 2018, is running again and is expected to mount a significant challenge to anyone running in the 50th.

Hunter’s seat was on the initial list of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targets in January.

Hunter received a massive influx of small, non-itemized campaign donations totaling roughly $345,000 in the second filing quarter. The massive increase in small donations — which do not need to be itemized if the contribution is less than $200 — prompted the Federal Election Commission to send a letter to the Hunter campaign asking for more information about his fundraising.

In a statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday, Hunter campaign treasurer Chris Marston said the flood of small donors was due to an FEC-compliant run direct mail fundraising effort.

“The committee has complied with the itemization rules and properly disclosed all contributors whose contributions aggregate to more than $200 in this election cycle,” Marston told the Union-Tribune. “The committee has engaged in a large-scale direct mail fundraising campaign this year and has accepted many individual contributions well below the aggregation threshold.”

Hunter’s reelection committee finished the second quarter with $296,511 in cash on hand, according to his FEC filing.Chris Marquette contributed to this report.

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