Judge denies motion to change venue for Hunter trial

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Photo by Richard Eaton. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) appears outside the San Diego Federal Courthouse on July 1, 2019 for an initial hearing in the ongoing litigation against the congressman and his wife Margaret.

A judge on Monday denied a change of venue motion for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), ruling that the 4-week trial on campaign corruption charges will be here in San Diego.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whelan ruled that he has been part of many high-profile cases here in San Diego and he didn’t agree with the defense that the trial should be held in another district because of publicity.

(Whelan was the judge in two Betty Broderick murder trials in 1990-91 when she was accused of killing her attorney husband Daniel Broderick and his second wife, in a highly publicized case that was later made into two television movies.)

However, Whelan said if he finds during initial jury selection that there is “actual prejudice” against Hunter, he would consider the change of venue motion again.

Hunter attorney Ricardo Arias Gutierrez told Whelan the San Diego Union-Tribune editorials about Hunter “keep coming,” saying “it’s almost like a weekly barrage” against Hunter.

Hunter’s lawyers have cited coverage by the U-T and local television reports as a reason to move the trial to another county, but they did not mention any other county newspapers in their change of venue motion.

Whelan also denied a motion to dismiss some of the 60 charges against Hunter that claimed he did not know that using campaign credit cards was a criminal offense.

“Mr. Hunter couldn’t have reasonably known” that such conduct was illegal, argued attorney Philip Adams, who added there was no “reasonable notice” to inform Congress members that it was illegal to use campaign funds for other purposes.

Hunter has claimed his wife Margaret Hunter, 44, of Alpine, was his campaign’s manager and most of the spending of campaign funds were authorized by her and not the congressman.

Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty June 13 to conspiracy to use funds from the congressional campaign of her husband. She appears likely to testify as a prosecution witness against him in the Sept. 10 trial and faces up to five years in federal prison.

The motion garnering most of the discussion Monday was the appearance of three federal prosecutors at a 2015 fundraiser and photographed with Hillary Clinton.

“We have a loss of impartiality. The public should expect more from the Department of Justice,” said Hunter attorney Greg Vega. “They were there to meet candidate Clinton.”

Vega said the appearance of the prosecutors were “a Hatch Act violation.” Vega said the prosecutors didn’t bring notebooks or legal pads with them.

“It strains the truth… to say they were there in official capacity,” said Vega.

Vega pointed out that Hunter was one of the first in Congress who endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Vega said he learned of the presence of the three federal prosecutors at the event through a Freedom of Information request.

“They were not there in their official capacity,” he added. “They were there to (get in) a photo.”

Vega said the prosecutors were there to meet with Clinton and assumed if she were elected president, one of them might be appointed to become U.S. Attorney for San Diego.

Vega used the info about the campaign visit to ask that the U.S. Attorney’s office be removed from prosecuting Hunter and to dismiss the case. The motion was denied.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said the three prosecutors didn’t pay to attend the fundraiser and their appearance was routine.

“This is a frivolous motion,” said Conover. “This is nothing but a distraction… nothing but smoke and mirrors.”

Conover said Vega coincidentally was at the same fundraiser since he was a donor to Clinton. He said Vega was also in one of the photos of the event.

One of the prosecutors who attended the event is no longer with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Whelan also denied motions to dismiss other charges in the indictment on other grounds as well.

The judge asked attorneys for the trial estimate and both sides estimated it would take four weeks.

“Hopefully, it won’t take that long,” said Vega.

Hunter has pleaded not guilty to all charges which include 43 counts of wire fraud, 13 counts of falsifying records from campaign finances and three counts of prohibited use of campaign finances.

Hunter was present for the motions and he and his wife remain free on $15,000 and $10,000 bond respectively.

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