California congressman Duncan Hunter announces resignation after corruption plea

Dec 6 (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter will resign from Congress following his guilty plea to a federal charge of conspiring to misuse campaign funds, he said on Friday.

Hunter's announcement that he would step down came days after the leading California lawmaker, a former U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, entered his guilty plea in federal court in San Diego.

"Shortly after the Holidays I will resign from Congress," Hunter, 42, said in a written statement released by his communications director.

"It has been an honor to serve the people of California's 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years," Hunter, a Republican, said in the statement.

Hunter faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but his attorney has said prosecutors have agreed to recommend significantly less time.

The Ethics Committee of the House of Representatives on Thursday told Hunter he should not vote on any matter before Congress while still in office and could face disciplinary action if he ignored that warning.

"This provision of House Rules was promulgated to preserve public confidence in the legislative process when a sitting member of Congress has been convicted of a serious crime," the committee said in a letter to Hunter.

The lawmaker 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, lavish travel, expensive meals, groceries and clothing.

Hunter, an early supporter of President Donald Trump, had originally pleaded not guilty in the case and insisted he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution. He changed his plea to guilty on Tuesday, saying he wanted to spare his family the stress of a trial.

Sentencing has been set for March 17 in the high-profile case.

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.

The corruption scandal has been seen as giving a boost to Democrats' bid to seize California's traditionally Republican 50th Congressional District.

Hunter's 2018 Democratic challenger, former Obama administration aide Ammar Campa-Najjar, was defeated in last year's race despite the incumbent's indictment.

But the guilty plea could play more to Democrats' favor in 2020, where the party already holds a heavy majority of California's 53 U.S. House of Representatives seats.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Jill Serjeant, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles Editing by Chris Reese, Bill Berkrot and Richard Chang)