Prosecutors revealed salacious details about the married congressman's lifestyle in court filings last week, saying he used campaign money to illegally finance a string of romantic relationships with lobbyists and congressional aides.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan said the allegations were relevant to whether campaign money was spent illegally and spoke to motive and intent. Hunter's attorney, Gregory Vega, argued that any mention of extramarital affairs and "personal indiscretions" would be "extremely prejudicial" at a trial set for September.
"I'm afraid that it will be the focus, instead of the evidence," Vega said. The judge acknowledged that the allegations were sensitive. He said prosecutors and Hunter's team could agree on mutual terms to describe the relationships.
The judge was asked to determine if the value of testimony about Hunter's affairs outweighed any prejudice that jurors may have against the congressman. Shaun Martin, a law professor at University of San Diego who has followed the case, said the judge "got it right."
"The evidence about the affair will definitely make Hunter look bad to the jury, but it's also relevant," Martin wrote in an email. "Defendants sometimes commit crimes for unseemly reasons, but those reasons get introduced at trial. ... It's a bad day for Duncan Hunter."
Hunter's attorneys have suggested any expenses for alleged affairs had a professional purpose because the women were lobbyists and that the spending could be considered campaign-related. "The defense can argue to the jury that the expenses were legitimate payments to a lobbyist. But I wouldn't be surprised if a jury concluded that there were ulterior motives for payments to one's mistresses," Martin wrote.
The judge, ruling on a flurry of procedural motions, didn't address Hunter's bid to dismiss charges or move the trial out of San Diego. Whelan said Hunter could keep speaking publicly about the case. The Republican congressman, an early supporter of President Donald Trump, sat quietly next to his attorney during the hearing. Outside, about two dozen protesters surrounded and shouted at him on his short walk to a car with a waiting driver.
His father, former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr., told reporters that the charges were politically motivated. Attorneys for the congressman have argued that prosecutors tied to the case were at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in August 2015 and tried to get a photo with the Democrat, compromising their impartiality.
The elder Hunter, who sat in the front row of the courtroom, gave reporters copies of an email from the U.S. Secret Service on how to get a photo taken with Clinton at the fundraiser. The email, part of a June 24 court filing, redacted the recipients' names but was a response to a Freedom of Information Act request for communications with two prosecutors involved in the case.
"This is the smoking gun," Hunter Sr. told reporters. The government says the prosecutors attended the fundraiser in an official capacity to assist law enforcement. Hunter and his wife were indicted in August on charges that they used more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses ranging from groceries to golf trips and family vacations, then lied about it in federal filings.
Margaret Hunter, who was not in court Monday, pleaded guilty last month to one corruption count and agreed to testify against her husband. In an interview with Fox News last year, Hunter said his campaign made mistakes, that he gave his wife power of attorney when he deployed as a Marine to Iraq in 2003 and that she handled his finances during his last five terms in office.
Hunter, 42, was re-elected in his strongly Republican congressional district in San Diego County last year despite the indictment. The Hunter name represents something of a political dynasty in the area — his father captured the seat in 1980 and held it until his son was elected in 2008.