SACRAMENTO — California’s political watchdog agency issued fines totaling $40,000 to two brothers and their campaign committees Thursday for improperly transferring money between their campaigns as both ran for state Assembly in 2008, a case that the agency called one of the most significant it has pursued.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission unanimously accepted an administrative law judge’s recommendation that Sen. Tom Berryhill, of Twain Harte, and his brother, former Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, of Ceres, be fined for improperly transferring $40,000 between their campaigns through two county Republican central committees.
Commissioners leveled the fines following a closed session after hearing arguments last week. An attorney for the brothers said they may fight the decision in court.
“The case is about cheating in elections,” said commission spokesman Jay Wierenga. “The Berryhills intentionally violated the public’s limits on campaign contributions to gain an unfair electoral advantage. This is one of the most significant cases we have prosecuted and today’s action by commissioners, in a bipartisan, unanimous decision, shows that this is serious.”
Tom Berryhill was an assemblyman successfully seeking re-election to the 25th Assembly District in 2008. Bill Berryhill needed money for his successful bid to represent the 26th Assembly District. Bill Berryhill lost a subsequent campaign to join his brother in the Senate.
The brothers, both Republicans, argued that there was no guarantee that Tom Berryhill’s money would go through the committees to Bill Berryhill, though the administrative law judge, Jonathan Lew, ruled otherwise.
“Our clients continue to strongly deny that they did anything wrong here and they believe the FPPC’s decision applied the wrong law,” said Charles Bell Jr., whose Sacramento law firm represented all the defendants in the case.
They will decide in coming weeks whether to challenge the commission’s ruling in Superior Court, he said.
If the commission’s decision stands, Bell said, it will sow confusion among potential campaign donors, political action committees and political party committees.
“We think it’s going to chill political donations substantially unless it’s corrected by the courts or the Legislature,” he said.
Thursday’s decision is the latest in a series of legal problems for state senators, a pattern so significant that the entire Senate and its staff spent Wednesday undergoing ethics training.
Earlier this year, the Senate suspended three Democratic senators with pay after Rod Wright was convicted by a Los Angeles County jury of voter fraud and perjury, while Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco were indicted on federal corruption charges. Wright is fighting his conviction while Calderon and Yee have denied wrongdoing.
Also this year, the campaign watchdog commission levied the largest lobbying fine in its history against a firm that violated campaign-contribution laws, mainly by throwing expensive parties for top political leaders including Gov. Jerry Brown and dozens of state lawmakers.
Lew, the administrative law judge, was particularly critical of Tom Berryhill’s actions in the most recent case, and he is expected to pay the bulk of the fine. Lew found his actions to be “serious and deliberate,” involving “an intention to conceal, deceive or mislead.”
Eileen Ricker, Tom Berryhill’s Senate spokeswoman, referred a request for comment to Bell.
Lew found that Tom Berryhill and his campaign committee should be fined up to $35,000, while Bill Berryhill and his committee should be fined up to $10,000. Republican central committees in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties should each be fined up to $10,000 for transferring the money between the brothers’ legislative campaigns.
The total fine can’t exceed $40,000, however. Bell and commission spokesman Wierenga said the brothers and the party central committees will decide how much each pays.
Bell said his reading is that Tom Berryhill will be responsible for up to $30,000 if the commission’s ruling stands, while Bill Berryhill and the central committees will each be responsible for up to $5,000.