A federal judge ruled Monday that the trial of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, would not be moved out of San Diego at this time, and prosecutors would not be excluded because of alleged political bias.
U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan denied both requests along with four others, which attorneys for Hunter had made in pre-trial motions late last month. He also denied Hunter’s motion to dismiss the whole indictment or some individual criminal counts based on alleged violation of constitutional protections for legislative materials and official actions.
Whelan left open the possibility that the trial could be moved out of San Diego County if the court finds during jury selection that the pool is too tainted by prejudice to ensure Hunter receives a fair trial.
Leaving the courtroom Monday, Hunter, 42, declined The San Diego Union-Tribune’s request for comment on the rulings.
Motions on which Whelan ruled Monday were left over from dozens slated to be decided at a hearing last week. Whelan had deferred ruling on the handful of motions until this week because they had not been fully briefed in time for him to carefully consider them.
Hunter is accused of improperly spending $250,000 in campaign dollars on family vacations, getaways with girlfriends, dental work, private school tuition, video games and more. He and his wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, were originally indicted Aug. 21 on 60 criminal charges and pleaded not guilty.
Last month, Margaret Hunter, 44, changed her plea to guilty of one count of criminal conspiracy, which included her admission that she and her husband knew they were breaking the law by making personal purchases with campaign donations.
Margaret Hunter did not attend the hearing Monday. Duncan D. Hunter was accompanied by his attorneys and his father and congressional predecessor, Duncan L. Hunter.
Duncan L. Hunter spoke with reporters after the hearing to reiterate accusations of political bias by prosecutors, who had attended a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in 2015 and taken a photograph with her at the invitation of the Secret Service.
In a motion asking the court to dismiss the indictment or exclude the prosecutors, attorneys for Duncan D. Hunter had suggested that political bias against him had motivated the prosecution to investigate and charge him.
The argument fell flat with Whelan, who denied the request at Monday’s hearing.
Whelan noted that the Secret Service has said publicly that it routinely invites prosecutors to events with protectees in case circumstances arise that require immediate legal advice, and that it routinely arranges photo opportunities with prosecutors to build good will between the agencies.
He also noted that prosecutors did not contribute to Clinton’s campaign, and the U.S. Department of Justice had determined that the prosecutors attended the event in their official capacity.
A prosecutor pointed out during the hearing Monday that under the defense attorneys’ argument that prosecutors are biased against Hunter because they attended the Clinton event, Gregory Vega, Hunter’s lead defense attorney, would be biased against his own client. He said Vega also was present at the same Clinton event, had taken a photograph with her and had made a contribution to her campaign to attend.
Whelan said at the hearing that an objective observer would find that there was sufficient probable cause to open the investigation, regardless of the Clinton fundraiser.
The judge cited several events that provided legitimate impetus for an investigation well before the fundraiser– a public letter the Federal Election Commission sent to Hunter’s campaign in April 2016 to inquire questionable charges; numerous news articles about the letter and the campaign’s spending; and a probe of the campaign’s spending by the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics.
Whelan also denied the defense’s request to move the trial out of the Southern District of California because unflattering press and voters’ preference for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump — who Hunter has long supported — in the 2016 presidential election had tainted the jury pool with prejudice.
In their motion, defense attorneys had asked the court to move the trial to the Eastern District of California, where voters favored Trump in the 2016 election.
Whelan pointed out in his ruling Monday that some of the unflattering opinion columns the defense cited in its motion were published before the 2018 election and voters reelected Hunter anyway.
Whelan denied the defense’s request for dismissal based on the presumption of prejudice, but deferred until trial his ruling on whether actual prejudice had so tainted the jury pool that Hunter could not get a fair trial in the Southern District of California.
Whelan said that even if a change of venue proves necessary, the defense is not entitled to choose where to move the trial.
Also during the hearing Monday, Whelan denied requests by Hunter’s attorneys to dismiss certain charges or the whole indictment based on arguments that relevant laws were vague, that U.S. House of Representative internal rules precluded criminal charges and that some evidence was collected and used in violation of constitutional protections for legislative materials and actions.
Whelan ruled that constitutional protections did not apply to evidence the defense had specified, criminal charges were not precluded by House rules and the relevant law was sufficiently clear.
Outside the courthouse Monday, about 20 protesters and about 15 supporters of Hunter held signs and chanted competing messages. While protesters held signs with messages including “Lock him up” and chanted “Shame,” supporters held campaign signs and placards with messages including a call for prosecutors to recuse themselves and chanted “Respect.”
Hector Gastelum, 44, of Chula Vista, said he came out to support Hunter, who has been a family friend for decades, and to remind people that Americans are innocent until proven guilty.
“I’m a big believer in due process, and it’s very important,” Gastelum said. “It’s a bedrock of American jurisprudence.”
Gastelum is a board member for the Otay Water District. The district serves Spring Valley, Rancho San Diego, eastern Chula Vista, Jamul and eastern Otay Mesa. Gastelum was temporarily removed from board committees in 2017 after a tweet that was criticized as anti-Muslim.
Tami Sims, 60, of Temecula, said she lives in Hunter’s district and came out to make sure people are aware of her congressman’s legal woes.
“I think there are a lot of people who are either uniformed or misinformed when it comes to Duncan Hunter, and there’s going to be news and everything here, so we wanted to make sure people saw exactly who Duncan is,” Sims said.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat running against Hunter in 2020 after an unsuccessful attempt to win Hunter’s seat in the 2018 election, also appeared outside the courthouse Monday. He said he was there to ask Hunter as he left the courthouse for a pact to refrain from personal attacks during their campaigns.
Campa-Najjar said he was unable to make his request because Hunter left the courthouse through a back entrance.
Last week prosecutors filed a series of motions, including one that spelled out some of Duncan Hunter’s questionable expenditures that prosecutors said were linked to his extramarital affairs with three lobbyists and two congressional staffers.
Whelan ruled the evidence could be introduced at trial, but said prosecutors should work on their wording to avoid undue prejudice against Hunter.
Whelan deferred until trial a ruling on whether Margaret Hunter will be allowed to testify, as Duncan Hunter’s lawyers have raised the issue of spousal privilege.
The women Hunter is alleged to have had affairs with were identified in court documents by numbers, not names.
Hunter is slated to be tried in September.
This article is written by Morgan Cook from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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