Babulal Bera, the father of Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, was sentenced Thursday in Sacramento federal court to a year and a day in prison for election fraud in connection with his son’s campaigns in 2010 and 2012.
He was also fined $100,000 and ordered to serve three years under the supervision of federal probation authorities upon his release from prison.
Barring bad behavior while incarcerated, he will be out in 10 months. Federal guidelines require a sentence of more than one year for a good-conduct qualification. The extra day tacked on to his sentence enables Bera to qualify for 54 days off his prison term. He is to begin servicing his sentence on Nov. 18.
In a case brimming with political implications, the lenient sentence was the one recommended by prosecutors because of Bera’s age, 83, his poor health, and his role as sole caretaker for his wife, 82, who is also in poor health. A federal probation officer and Bera’s lawyers asked for non-custodial probation, to include home confinement.
She won't able to live without me and I won't be able to live without her.
Babulal Bera, the father of Rep. Ami Berra, D-Elk Grove, regarding his wife as he asked for leniency at his sentencing for election fraud
“Let’s face it, if Mr. Bera were a younger man, we wouldn’t be here arguing about a year and a day,” U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley said at one point in the proceedings.
Near the conclusion of the hourlong hearing, Bera made an impassioned, last-ditch plea to Nunley for a sentence that “will allow (him and his wife) to stay together. She won’t able to live without me and I won’t be able to live without her.”
Nunley, however, would not be dissuaded from sending him to prison, albeit for the very short term. He acknowledged prison will be more difficult for Bera than it would be for a younger man, and that “is to be considered,” and he noted that advanced age is a factor in calculating sentences under federal guidelines, which are advisory, not mandatory.
Officials said Bera orchestrated at least 130 fraudulent campaign contributions totaling more than $260,000, for his son, Ami Bera’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns.
But, the judge said, “I have to consider the deterrent effect.” He pondered a much larger fine in lieu of prison, he said, “but that would send the wrong message that, if you’re old and rich, you can just pay the fine and walk away. That would not be a deterrent.”
In a prepared statement issued after the sentencing, Ami Bera said: “This is one of the most difficult moments my family has ever experienced. Of course I’m absolutely devastated and heartbroken for how today’s decision will impact our entire family. But my father’s accepted what he did was wrong. He’s taken responsibility, and I love him more than words can express.”
The harm you have done to the election process here is something that can't be quantified
U. S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley, to Babulal Bera.
With a number of family members and other supporters in the gallery behind him, Babulal Bera faced Nunley at Thursday’s hearing and described his immigration from India to Southern California as a young man, and how he obtained a master’s degree in chemical engineering and worked for an electronics company.
Wearing a dark business suit, he recounted for the judge the immense pride he felt when Ami Bera announced his decision to run for Congress. Before that, he said, he had never been involved in politics.
Nunley told Bera at Thursday’s hearing it was commendable that, “After you got caught, you owned up to what you did.”
The judge also noted that Bera had led an “admirable life” – marked by love and support for his family and charitable acts – up until the 2010 election cycle, when he began illegal fundraising to boost his son’s campaign for California’s 3rd District seat. “We don’t normally see a defendant like you,” the judge remarked.
Ami Bera lost the 2010 election, but won the 7th District seat in 2012 and was re-elected in 2014. He is in a bitter contest this year with Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican.
Jones issued a statement, saying in part that “the court handed down a tough sentence to Mr. Bera for his part in a very serious crime committed to further Ami Bera’s political ambitions.”
“I am sorry to hear that at 83 years old, Mr. Bera will be going to prison for a crime I do not believe he alone is responsible for. As this investigation continues, I continue to have faith in the federal investigative process and its outcomes,” the statement read.
The congressman has said he had no knowledge of the illegal fundraising tactics employed by his father until federal authorities came calling.
In a May news conference at the time, the elder Bera pleaded guilty to two felony fraud counts, Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said in response to questioning by reporters that the government has no evidence Ami Bera was aware of his father’s illegal activities.
“To date, there is no indication from what we’ve learned in the investigation that either the congressman or his campaign staff knew of, or participated in,” Babulal Bera’s criminal activity, Talbert said.
Talbert also said there is no indication Bera continued to engage in fraudulent fundraising after the 2012 campaign.
Bera solicited people to give the maximum allowable to the campaigns and then reimbursed the straw donors, thus violating the legal limit an individual may donate directly to a campaign in a single election cycle and a ban on contributions under a name other than the actual donor.
Ami Bera and his father’s lawyers have said that it was Babulal Bera’s exuberance at the prospect of his son becoming a congressman that propelled him over the line.
Nunley did not buy that argument. He pointed out that more than 10 percent of the individual contributions to the 2010 campaign were illegal and provided by Babulal Bera.
“Mr. Bera’s very, very serious crime cut to the heart of integrity in our election system,” the judge said. “The truth is, the defendant’s offense was calculated” and sophisticated. The straw donors “live in various states,” and Bera “wrote checks on different accounts.” Nunley also noted Bera recruited “bundlers” to organize and collect contributions from others.
Prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum that Bera paid bundlers as much as $25,000. “In doing so,” they said, “he was exerting his considerable influence over members of his community, and making them complicit in his crime.
“He orchestrated at least 130 fraudulent campaign contributions totaling more than $260,000,” the prosecutors said. “The amounts he directed into the campaign … may have helped establish the legitimacy of the campaign. Finally, this defendant knew his acts were wrong, and he took active steps to conceal them.”
Nunley said this was not the work of a naive individual or someone who didn’t understand campaign finance. “He absolutely was trying to influence a political agenda,” the judge added.
“The harm you have done to the election process here is something that can’t be quantified,” the judge told Bera. “There is a feeling in this country there is too much money in elections.”
Bee Staff Writer Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189