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How a local newspaper reporter helped expose Rep. Duncan Hunter’s corruption

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter is guilty. He is likely out of office and on the way to jail. And it all started when a reporter asked reasonable questions about his spending habits.

On Tuesday, Hunter pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge. Assistant US Attorney Phillip Halpern said Hunter and his wife used campaign funds “as a piggy bank to float their lifestyle that they otherwise could not maintain.”

Up until now, Hunter had been denying any wrongdoing. But on Tuesday he said “I made mistakes, and that’s what today was all about.” Prosecutors, however, say this was not about “mistakes” — this was about corruption. CNN’s Paul Vercammen has details here…

How it all started

Per Vercammen, “this case began with an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, by investigative reporter Morgan Cook.” Specifically it was this April 2016 story about Hunter using campaign funds “to pay for video games on 68 separate occasions.”

An editor asked Cook to look into a form letter from the FEC to Hunter’s campaign. “I love campaign finance investigations,” she told me by phone Tuesday night. “I think they are important and interesting and poorly understood.” So she dug in, and saw some unusual spending, and started to investigate.

“I read that article,” Halpern said at a Tuesday presser, explaining that he then discussed it with colleagues; consulted with other agencies; and pursued the crime. “Today, in many ways, is a triumph for the press and shows the importance of having a free press,” Halpern said. Other reporters congratulated her after the presser.

“I think I’m most gratified that Morgan has been vindicated,” Cook’s colleague Jeff McDonald said on a recent podcast, “The amount of pushback that she got, personally, from this member of Congress was inexcusable. The denials and the fake news arguments that he put forward were nothing short of despicable. And I think it’s nice that the system does work.”

Yes, indeed. The Union-Tribune modestly acknowledged its own role in this story on Tuesday. I hope readers in San Diego and across the country find out about the paper’s impact…

Read more of Tuesday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…

Halpern’s key point

The assistant US Attorney said: “No figure, regardless of the heights they’ve reached, no figure regardless of what they’ve contributed, and no figure regardless of the office they occupy, should be allowed in this country to cry witch hunt or fake news in an attempt to deflect their criminal wrongdoing.”

Outside the courthouse on Tuesday, Cook was interviewed by other news outlets about her role…

→ MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle tweeted: “For clarification — the HUNTER pleading guilty to conspiracy is NOT Hunter Biden. Reminder — Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins (who pled guilty to insider trading) were the first two members of Congress to endorse Trump…”

CNN