California’s political ethics panel Thursday unanimously approved a $40,000 money-laundering penalty against state Sen. Tom Berryhill, agreeing with an administrative law judge’s proposed decision that the Twain Harte Republican committed “serious and deliberate” violations of campaign finance rules.
The Fair Political Practices Commission announced the fine after a brief special meeting in Oakland, conducted by telephone. Last week, the panel took the case under submission after hearing from the commission’s enforcement chief and Berryhill’s attorney.
“The commission has unanimously voted to adopt the (judge’s) proposed decision with limited, minor and technical changes noted by the enforcement division,” Commissioner Eric Casher said after the closed session of the commission’s four existing members, two Republicans and two Democrats.
Authorities allege that Tom Berryhill, seeking to bypass contribution limits, colluded with his brother, former Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, and GOP central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties to move $40,000 in Tom Berryhill campaign money to Bill Berryhill’s campaign in the days before the November 2008 election.
“This was cheating on the election, plain and simple,” enforcement chief Gary Winuk, who brought the case, said after the commission’s vote. “The state has campaign-contribution limits, and the Berryhills intentionally violated those limits and gave themselves an unfair advantage in an election.”
Tom Berryhill could appeal the decision to Superior Court. He and the other defendants denied any wrongdoing, and said the senator gave money to the central committees with no preconditions on where they spent it. At the time, Bill Berryhill’s campaign was struggling amid a late surge of Democratic money and Barack Obama’s popular coattails in down-ticket races. He defeated Democrat John Eisenhut by 4,680 votes out of 136,560 cast.
Charles Bell, the attorney for Tom Berryhill and the other defendants, criticized the decision. The Berryhills and county committees never engaged in contribution earmarking, he said, and the administrative law judge applied the law incorrectly.
Bell said his clients will decide whether to appeal to the Superior Court in coming weeks. Tom Berryhill’s legal defense fund reported spending $56,000 on attorney and other expenses through mid-March.
Thursday’s outcome has significant implications for campaign finance, especially for the millions of political dollars that flow through Republican and Democratic committees before arriving in candidates’ treasuries. Commission enforcement chief Gary Winuk said the ruling makes it clear that coordinating money moves is illegal. But Bell called the decision “vague and standardless” and said it “will leave donors and party committees highly uncertain about what they can and can’t do in this environment.”
Authorities began investigating the Berryhills in 2009 and filed the case in 2012. The commission referred it to Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew, who held a trial on the case last fall. In his recommended decision in January, Lew wrote that, “By their nature, the violations involved an intention to conceal, deceive or mislead.”
Tom Berryhill is the fourth state senator facing allegations of impropriety. State Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee have been indicted on corruption and other charges, and state Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of lying about his residence when he ran for office in 2008. The Senate has suspended Calderon, Yee and Wright.