Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, whose father is awaiting sentencing on two felony counts of election fraud, for years has engaged in a complex series of campaign donations involving his parents and the families of other congressional candidates, federal records show.
Beginning six years ago, when he unsuccessfully challenged former Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, Bera and his family wrote checks to other Democrats, almost always for the maximum amount allowed under federal law. Those candidates or their families gave similar amounts to Bera, and the contributions often occurred within days of one another.
The practice differs from the reimbursement scheme perpetrated by Babulal “Bob” Bera, 83, in which he repaid donors as a way to direct more money to his son’s campaign committee. Federal officials and Ami Bera maintain the congressman, who has represented a suburban Sacramento County district since defeating Lungren in a 2012 rematch, was unaware of his father’s illegal activities.
The pattern of giving involving other candidates, known as donor swapping, is most often seen among deep-pocketed families. Campaign finance experts said such see-saw contributions generally do not run afoul of federal law, but say they are a way to sidestep individual donation limits and help show fundraising prowess.
“Nothing really stops two people from saying, ‘I’ll give to your guy if you give to mine,’ ” said Bradley Smith, professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan election reform group, said an argument can be made that coordinated exchanges between candidates’ families evade the law, which prohibits making contributions in the name of another.
“I think in spirit it is, but it’s a hard case, legally, to make,” said Noble, who served as general counsel of the FEC. “If you can show very specifically that the money was given and the intent was that it be turned around and given to you, I think there is a question of whether or not it violates the contribution limit,” he added. “Certainly, it is an attempt to get around the contribution limit.”
Bera, running for re-election this year against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican, declined interview requests about the campaign donations.
Jerid Kurtz, Bera’s campaign manager, said in a statement that the congressman over the years has met officeholders and candidates in races across the country, “many of whom he has chosen to support because of a shared commitment to Democratic values and furthering the middle class.”
“When help is needed, Rep. Bera has always been willing to encourage his own supporters to assist other candidates in competitive or challenging races,” Kurtz said.
Some instances in which Bera’s parents engaged in a pattern of giving with families of other congressional candidates have been reported in the past. Following his father’s guilty plea, The Sacramento Bee reviewed contribution records for four election cycles, finding such a pattern between Bera and his family and at least six other congressional candidates. Nearly $240,000 changed hands.
Nearly $240,000 changed hands in a pattern of giving involving at least six other congressional candidates.
Bera’s father, listed in campaign finance records as Babulal, Babulal R., or B.R. Bera, and his wife, Kanta Bera, gave the maximum allowed to their son’s campaigns, and contributed at least $75,000 to candidates whose immediate families gave to Bera.
Candidates can give unlimited amounts to themselves, but donor-swapping makes it appear that they have a larger list of supporters and do not need to rely as much on their own wealth.
Babulal Bera retired as a chemical engineer sometime in the 1980s. Property records show he made investments in several hotels or motels over the years.
In 2010, Bera and his wife, Janine, along with Babulal and Kanta, each made $4,800 in contributions to Democrat Ravi Sangisetty, an attorney running in Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District. Sangisetty, his late father, Koti, and mother, Aruna, each wrote $4,800 checks to Bera’s campaign committee.
Reached through his law office, Sangisetty said he met Bera at a candidate training organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the two hit it off. Both men are Indian American. Bera is a medical doctor, and Sangisetty’s parents both were trained physicians.
Sangisetty said his father, who since died, was the point of contact for the family when it came to political giving, but that he believed the donations were organized at the campaign staff level. Asked if he knew of his parents’ participation, Sangisetty said he “had an idea about it.” A major reason he’s not eager to run again anytime soon is the financial imperative, Sangisetty said.
“You’re just constantly, essentially, trying to beg people for contributions and there is enormous pressure from the political folks, too, to show those numbers,” he said. “It’s never substantive. It was just, ‘Can you raise the money?’ ”
He said he’s stayed in touch with Bera, even contributing $250 to his 2012 campaign, but was unaware of the troubles that have engulfed his father. Sangisetty said the constant dictate to fundraise is “more evidence of a broken system” than a reflection on a candidate, “or somebody being corrupted by the process.”
“Take your pick of any congressman or any congresswoman in that body and you are going to find things, if you could really study these (Federal Election Commission) reports, that don’t sit right with people,” he added. “Unfortunately that’s just the nature of it. It’s just intrinsic to the process.”
Democrat Jon Hulburd is an attorney who ran in Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District in the 2010 cycle. Carrie Hulburd, his wife, and two other family members each gave to Bera in amounts of $4,800, the federal limit that year.
Certainly, it is an attempt to get around the contribution limit.
Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington
Carrie Hulburd is one of the family owners of SC Johnson, a leading manufacturer of household cleaning products. Babulal, Kanta and Janine Bera soon after made $4,800 contributions to Hulburd. Hulburd himself gave Bera $1,000 in 2013.
Similar giving patterns emerged with other candidates over the next three election cycles.
In 2012, Ami Bera, his wife and father gave $5,000 apiece to Democrat Stacey Lawson, one of several candidates vying for the new 2nd Congressional District seat spanning the northern coast of California. Lawson and a family member directed a total of $6,500 to Bera. She later gave him $1,000 in 2014.
Neither Hulburd nor Lawson responded to requests for comment.
The younger Bera and his family also gave to Democratic Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego, with whom Bera is friends, and received contributions from Peters, his wife, Lynn Gorguze, and their family. The donations took place from 2012 through 2015. (See attached graphic for details.)
Peters spokeswoman MaryAnne Pintar said the campaign mailed a refund to Babulal Bera. Pintar stressed that his $5,400 contribution to Peters last year was a legal donation. But, “given the news that broke ... we decided that returning it was appropriate under the circumstances,” she said.
Edward Loya, Jr., an attorney for Babulal Bera, said his client would not be making any comment.
The elder Bera this month admitted to recruiting friends, family and acquaintances to contribute nearly $270,000 to Bera, and then largely reimbursed them with his own money. Prosecutors said as part of the plea bargain the government agreed not to charge Kanta Bera. Ami Bera said he has since given the money to the U.S. Treasury. Babulal Bera faces 10 years in prison, though prosecutors agreed to recommend no more than 2 1/2 years.
Edward Loya, Jr., an attorney for Babulal Bera, said his client would not be making any comment.
Asked whether the Bera family’s donation pattern was scrutinized, Deb Duckett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, repeated a previous statement that the investigation is ongoing, and said the office does not discuss details of its probes.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said the fact that Bera and his father were making donations to the same candidates leads her to question whether the son was cognizant, or should have been, of his father’s other campaign finance behavior.
“While I can’t say that the candidate should be aware of everything that happens, certainly when family members have done this as a consistent pattern in the past, I think it raises questions about the candidate’s knowledge in the instance of his dad,” Feng said.
Bera’s campaign manager, Kurtz, said in his statement that “it’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that there is anything improper about candidates helping one another, and the U.S. attorney has been clear that Rep. Bera and his campaign had no knowledge of his dad’s activities.”
It’s never substantive. It was just, ‘Can you raise the money?’
Ravi Sangisetty, former Democratic congressional candidate in Louisiana
In the 2012 primary, Bera’s parents and wife made six contributions of $2,500 to Connecticut Democrat Dan Roberti, the son of Washington power broker and movie producer Vin Roberti, who finished a distant third in the race. Members of the Roberti family, who did not respond to messages, made seven donations of $2,500 to Bera in that election.
Another series of contributions occurred between Bera and Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida.
In 2011, three days after Janine Bera gave $5,000 to the “Friends of Patrick Murphy” committee, Murphy’s father, Thomas P. Murphy, provided $5,000 to “Ami Bera for Congress.” In 2013, the younger Murphy’s mother, Leslie, gave $5,200 to Bera. Babulal and Kanta contributed a total of $10,400 to Murphy two weeks later. Three months later, Janine Bera donated $5,200 to Murphy.
Murphy’s campaign sent $1,000 to Bera in 2014, and Babulal Bera sent $5,000 to Murphy last June.
Murphy spokeswoman Galia Slayen did not respond to specific questions from The Bee, including whether the families coordinated. Instead, Slayen pointed to a recent Treasure Coast Newspapers story quoting an email from her stating Babulal Bera did not arrange an exchange.
Murphy said he recently donated $10,200 he had received from Babulal Bera to a trio of nonprofits: Common Cause Florida, Big Bend Homeless Coalition and Renewal Coalition.