The stooped octogenarian in a striped tie clenched his teeth and leaned on a cane as he prepared to admit guilt to committing election fraud to assist his son’s campaign committee.
Babulal Bera, the 83-year-old father of Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, recruited family, friends and acquaintances to donate to the committee, then reimbursed them with his money. Standing before U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley in May, with a Gujarati interpreter by his side, he entered his plea.
“I have, in fact, done the crime,” he said.
On Thursday, the elder Bera, a retired engineer who invested in motels and sometimes goes by “Bob,” will learn whether he’ll go to prison. A probation officer has recommended he be spared time behind bars, citing two sections of federal sentencing guidelines addressing a defendant’s age and family ties and responsibilities.
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Babulal Bera, of La Palma in Orange County, admitted to sidestepping campaign finance laws during his son’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns. He returned to the donors all but $5,326 of the $268,726 they provided. His actions allowed him to exceed the legal maximum on individual contributions under federal law.
The maximum prison sentence on each of his two felony counts is five years. Prosecutors initially agreed to recommend no more than 2 1/2 years and now say he should spend 1 year and a day in person, pay a fine of at least $130,200, and serve a three-year term of supervised release, including 6 months of home confinement. They recognized he has lived what appears to be a “full, productive and generous life,” but objected to the probation officer’s recommendation of noncustodial probation.
He cannot explain away his actions as the result of runaway emotions.
Prosecutors’ filing signed by Philip A. Ferrari, assistant U.S. attorney
“The amounts he directed into the campaign were significant, and as discussed below they may have helped establish the legitimacy of the campaign,” prosecutors wrote in the filing signed by Philip A. Ferrari, assistant U.S. attorney. “Finally, this defendant knew his acts were wrong, and he took active steps to conceal them, using multiple bank accounts and sometimes writing reimbursement checks from multiple accounts on the same day.”
“However enthusiastic he may have been about the prospect that his son would be a United States Congressman, he cannot explain away his actions as the result of runaway emotions,” they added.
Edward J. Loya Jr., the attorney for Babulal Bera, said neither he nor his client were cooperating with requests to talk with the press. In a memorandum filed this week, they requested three years of probation and a fine of $130,200. The filing pointed out that Bera has had two knee replacement operations, two spinal surgeries and prostate cancer, for which he continues to receive regular checkups. Loya also said he has fallen several times because of loss of sensation in his lower extremities and left “foot drop.”
I can’t live without him.
Kanta Bera, Babulal’s wife of 61 years
As part of the plea bargain, the government agreed not to charge Babulal’s wife of 61 years, Kanta Bera, 82. Court records say she has had a brain aneurysm, two strokes (including one the family has said occurred shortly before Ami Bera’s inauguration, when she fell into a coma), chronic kidney failure, osteoporosis and fractured bones.
In the court record, Babulal Bera said he was concerned that his wife “would not last a day” if he were incarcerated.
Added Kanta Bera: “I can’t live without him.”
Before arriving in the U.S. from the small farming village of Vadodara, Babulal Bera earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Gujarat University. In 1958, he came to attend graduate school in engineering at the University of Southern California. Kanta joined him two years later, also attending USC to receive her graduate degree. He described their first meeting in India, and then their marriage, as unusual because they were not arranged.
While at USC, he worked nights as a ticket-taker at Los Angeles Coliseum, temporary home of the Dodgers, earning $8 a game, he said in a 2013 interview with India Abroad.
After finishing his studies, he became an engineer until retiring in 1985. Kanta Bera taught for more than 30 years in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. They made the kind of life for their children that their congressman-son has called “the American dream.”
The two raised three sons, piling them into the family station wagon every chance they had to go camping or take longer trips. The one meal they were sure to eat together was dinner. They watched the news and talked about what was going on in the world.
Meanwhile, their extended family proliferated.
Kanta Bera described their home, with its sprawling backyard and tree house, as always open to visitors, and the Beras developed a wealth of knowledge on all matters of immigration, helping Babulal’s sister and four brothers immigrate to the United States. In less than a decade, the Beras sponsored 300 people to come to America, Ami Bera’s brother, Rimal, also a physician, wrote in a first-person piece in India Abroad. Family likened the Beras’ home to a mini Ellis Island.
If you look at the community in a broad family perspective my mom and dad are at the top helping a lot of folks.
Rep. Ami Bera
They sponsored aunts and uncles, helping them get through college, and to become doctors, engineers and business owners. And they hosted students, converting their garage into living quarters, cooking meals and driving them to school.
“If you look at the community in a broad family perspective my mom and dad are at the top helping a lot of folks,” Ami Bera said.
An avid bridge player, Babulal Bera banded with friends and paid cash for a community hall to host games and other activities. They helped found The Gujarati Society and to establish the first Hindu temple in Southern California. Later, they paid to open a high school in India for underprivileged girls, and a venue for free wedding ceremonies.
Until five years ago, the elder Bera operated four motels with his sons Rimal and Rajesh and their wives, then gave his ownership interest in three of the motels to family. He remains the full owner of one motel.
Ami Bera announced plans to run for Congress during a Christmas party at his brother’s home in 2008. Babulal Bera recalled feeling excited in his statement to the judge.
“I wanted to try to get everyone to help and be a part of my excitement and joy. ... In all of this excitement, and still feeling it was hard to believe that my son was running for Congress, and given my love for him, it might be said that I went a little crazy,” Babulal Bera wrote.
“I feel so grateful for everything that America has provided to me, my family and my extended family members and I have tried during my life to give back to this most wonderful country as much as I can,” he said. “Now I want to also apologize to the people of this country for what I have done.”
Ami Bera said in a prepared statement Friday that everyone involved with this case wants to ensure the focus is on the merits in front of the court, “so I’m waiting to discuss it until after it concludes.”
“This is one of the most difficult moments my family has ever experienced,” Ami Bera said. “Janine and I are worried about both of my parents. My father made a grave mistake, he’s accepted responsibility, and now we’re all ready to move on.”
Meeting with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board in June, the congressman said he’s not spoken with Babulal about the case and doesn’t want to see him go to prison.
“I think this was a father who wanted to help out ... got over-exuberant ... maybe did not intentionally think he was breaking the law,” Ami Bera said.
Babulal’s place as the patriarch of a larger Indian community in Southern California, and the reservoir of good will that came along with that, made his successful fundraising unsurprising, Ami Bera said. He said he never sat down with anyone to ensure Babulal Bera understood campaign finance laws, including contribution limits.
“When I first found out about this, my first instinct sitting there with investigators, was I want to pick up the phone and call my dad and ask him if he did this,” Ami Bera said. “I was shocked. To their credit they said you might want to talk to” a lawyer. He said the attorney told him, “‘Look, this is an ongoing investigation. I think you need to be careful here.’”
Asked why the donors were reimbursed, the younger Bera declined to speculate: “He has never committed a crime in his life.”
Babulal Bera’s attorney said in the court records that despite understanding he personally was not allowed to contribute more than the lawful limit, he made the “misguided decision” to give people money so they could make the contributions.
“Knowing that, if elected, Ami would be serving others, a value that Mr. Bera had instilled in his children from a young age, and that Ami would be the first ever Gujarati-American congressman, Mr. Bera’s zeal for Ami’s campaign got the better of his judgment.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office has not released names of the donors and the amounts attributed to them.
For a parent to get this involved in the race without including (Ami Bera), or telling others, or getting advice as to what to do? I don’t know. It defies reasoning a little bit.
James Wedick, a retired FBI agent who worked on high-profile public corruption probes, referred to the case as “unusual” because it’s far more common to have politicians themselves orchestrate sophisticated and illicit ways to underwrite their campaigns than their aging parents.
“For a parent to get this involved in the race without including (Ami Bera), or telling others, or getting advice as to what to do? I don’t know. It defies reasoning a little bit,” Wedick said. “And most of the time when I have looked, it’s a lot a more complicated than people have suggested. Where there’s smoke there’s usually fire.”
Separate from the criminal probe, The Bee reported in May that Ami Bera and his family, including his parents, participated in a complex series of campaign donations involving the families of other Democratic congressional candidates. Campaign finance experts said the contributions, which often came within days of one another, generally do not violate federal law, but were another way to avoid individual donation limits.
Ami Bera has said the contributions often were arranged by the candidates themselves, but in some cases may also have been initiated by the candidates’ families or their campaign staffs. Bera also said he periodically asked his wife and parents to contribute to colleagues running in competitive contests, but that similar donations from those candidates and their relatives didn’t constitute “reimbursements.”
Bera, who won the suburban Sacramento seat in 2012 and defended it two years later, faces a November challenge from Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Jones’ campaign continues to insist the congressman was fully aware of the illegal fundraising scheme and now is dishonorably allowing his elderly father to take the blame.
Prosecutors have repeatedly said their more than 1 1/2 -year investigation found no evidence Ami Bera or his campaign knew of Babulal Bera’s illegal activity. On Thursday, they recommended the one-year prison sentence, noting that it was 60 percent shorter than the maximum allowed under the plea agreement.
Gregory A. Vega, a former U.S. attorney for San Diego, said in an interview that there is a basis for imposing a sentence shorter than the normal range for someone with physical impairments. In the case of a seriously infirm defendant, Vega said, home detention may be as efficient as, and less costly than, imprisonment.
While considerations are given for age, Vega said the impact on family is not a basis for sentencing decisions “unless it’s truly, truly extraordinary.”
“Clearly, I could see the defense attorney’s argument: ‘He’s 83 years old. What’s the chance of him being a recidivist? He’s not going to commit any more crimes so why do you want to put him in prison?’” Vega said. “And I could see the government’s position: ‘We need to send a message that no one is beyond the law.’”