(Adds case background, comments from congressman; byline)
By Jennifer McEntee
SAN DIEGO, Dec 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, a leading California conservative, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a single federal charge of conspiring to misuse campaign funds in a corruption case that could help Democrats gain his traditionally Republican seat.
The felony offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but his attorney has said prosecutors have agreed to recommend significantly less time than that. Sentencing was set for March 17.
Hunter, 42, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran and early supporter of President Donald Trump, had originally pleaded not guilty in the case and insisted before this week that he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution.
He appeared on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan in San Diego for a hearing that lasted less than 10 minutes, calmly answering "guilty" when asked by the judge for his plea to a single count of conspiring to use campaign funds for non-campaign purposes.
Pausing outside the courthouse afterward, Hunter, dressed in a dark suit and tie, told a throng of reporters, "I made mistakes and that's what today was all about."
Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted in 2018 on charges of misappropriating $250,000 in campaign donations to pay for personal expenses, including their children's private school tuition, lavish travel, expensive meals at restaurants, groceries and clothing.
Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to misuse campaign funds, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case. She has yet to be sentenced.
Appearing on local television on Monday to announce he was pleading guilty, Hunter said had decided to do so in order to spare his family from the spectacle of a trial that was scheduled to open next month.
Hunter also indicated, without saying so explicitly, that he would not seek re-election next year to the San Diego congressional seat he first won in 2008, succeeding his father and fellow Republican, Duncan Lee Hunter.
"I'm confident that the transition will be a good one. My office will remain open, I've got a great staff," he said. "We're going to pass it off to whoever takes the seat next year."
He did not say anything else about his political career after Tuesday's courtroom proceeding. (Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)
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