Politics & Government

No election fraud charges against Ami Bera, says U.S. Justice Dept.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Friday that it has closed the books on its investigation of contributions to the campaign committee of Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.

The only result of the investigation was the prosecution of Bera’s father, Babulal Bera, who pleaded guilty to election fraud and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He was also fined $100,000 and ordered to serve three years under the supervision of federal probation authorities upon his release from prison.

“No other charges will be sought in this matter,” the Justice Department’s announcement said. “The United States will not comment further on this matter.”

Rep. Bera issued the following prepared statement after the department’s announcement:

“After conducting an exhaustive investigation, this case was closed after the U.S. attorney stated that my campaign and I had been fully cooperative and that neither I nor my staff were targets of this investigation.

“In this matter, I have never believed it to be appropriate for me to comment on how authorities handle their job, and I trust the decisions they made in the pursuit of this case.

“My father made a grave mistake, but moving forward I’m focused on helping my parents get through the next year.”

Bera faces a stiff challenge in the Nov. 8 election from Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones for his 7th District seat.

Jones’ campaign spokesman Dave Gilliard said in an email, “Congressman Bera was not exonerated or cleared. The statement simply says there will no more charges in the case.”

“That Bera’s elderly father masterminded a very sophisticated quarter of a million dollar political money laundering scheme is beyond rational belief,” Gilliard added.

The FBI, a branch of the Justice Department, investigated contributions made from 2009 through 2012 to Ami Bera’s campaign committee. The agents established that Babulal Bera, 83, of La Palma in Orange County, made unlawfully excessive contributions to his son’s committee and made contributions in the names of other people, also a violation of federal election law.

He solicited legal maximum contributions from people, allowed them to be recorded on the records of the committee and reported to the Federal Election Commission as contributors, and then reimbursed them.

At a May news conference after the matter became public, Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said there were approximately 90 such straw donors who were contributors of record but were reimbursed a total of more than $260,000 by Babulal Bera. He said the straw donors included Bera family members, friends and acquaintances.

Yet, he said, there is no evidence Ami Bera or any members of his congressional and campaign staffs knew of Babulal Bera’s criminal activity.

Talbert acknowledged at the news conference that the straw donors, some of whom were interviewed by the FBI, were culpable due to their participation in the scheme. Their identities have not been made public, and none of them will be charged.

The Justice Department does not typically announce conclusions of its investigations.

“It’s unusual for the government to announce its investigations to be over,” said William Portanova, a former federal and state prosecutor now in private practice. “It takes away from the deterrent value. The government wins when people are worried they may be involved in an investigation. Everyone’s behavior improves.“

Tom Johnson, another veteran prosecutor for the federal and state governments and now in private practice, agreed with Portanova that “money laundering and political corruption investigations can stretch out for years. So, it is unusual for the U.S. Department of Justice to formally announce a conclusion, but they must have run it to ground.”

Talbert declined Friday to answer written questions by The Sacramento Bee, which included a question as to why the department chose to announce the end of the Bera probe.

Bera’s prepared release sought to compare Friday’s announcement to an issue that arose during Jones’ 2010 campaign for sheriff.

“In the past,” Bera’s release said, “such as the investigation into Sheriff Scott Jones, the FBI has taken steps to issue a statement announcing the close of an investigation.” The release included a link to a Sacramento Bee story on the 2010 matter.

Former Sheriff Lou Blanas, who was backing Jones’ opponent during the 2010 campaign, called a news conference to talk about a 2004 FBI investigation of a stolen $3.8 million Treasury check. Jones had an office in a building owned by bail bondsmen who were the focus of the investigation, and the FBI approached Jones. He was suspended for eight days while the FBI conducted its investigation. He passed a polygraph test, voluntarily testified before a federal grand jury and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

At the urging of John McGinness, who was backing Jones for sheriff and who had been Blanas’ undersheriff and succeeded him as sheriff, Drew Parenti, then special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento field office, issued a statement reiterating what Jones and McGinness were saying – that Jones had been cleared.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189

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