Politics & Government

State senator denies laundering money to help brother’s campaign in 2008

State Sen. Tom Berryhill on Thursday rejected state investigators’ charges that he illegally laundered tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash in 2008 to help the Assembly campaign of his brother, Bill Berryhill.

Taking the stand on the third day of an administrative law hearing in Sacramento, the Twain Harte Republican testified he has long spread his political money among Republican Party committees and candidates.

The fact that more than $40,000 he gave to GOP central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties ended up in his brother’s campaign account less than a day later was a decision he had no involvement in, he said.

“I just had a hope and a prayer,” Tom Berryhill testified of his contributions to the county committees. “There were only so many places they could spend it. We were going to take our chances and hope they did the right thing.”

The California Fair Political Practices Commission charges that Tom Berryhill, Bill Berryhill and the central committees orchestrated the money shifts in the closing days of the fall 2008 campaign to bypass individual contribution limits of $3,600 per election. County committees could give up to $30,200 to candidates at the time, but coordination is prohibited.

Unlike the vast majority of people charged with violating campaign-finance rules, the Berryhills and the county committees have refused to settle. “The easy out way out here would have been to cut and run,” said Tom Berryhill, who moved to the Senate in 2010 and oversees Senate GOP fundraising. “But the fact of the matter here is, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Thursday’s testimony offered a glimpse at the inside workings of political fundraising. Frantic candidates and their consultants regularly “ring the bell” in the closing days of a campaign, pleading for more money, Tom Berryhill said. He said he regularly told donors to give their money to county central committees instead of the California Republican Party because the state party collected an “awful” 10 percent cut.

On cross-examination by commission attorney Neal Bucknell, Berryhill repeatedly said he could not remember the context of the fall 2008 emails and text messages between him and Bill Berryhill’s consultant and local Republican leaders. Bucknell said the messages conveyed illegal collusion to move Tom Berryhill’s money to Bill Berryhill.

“I don’t sit around all day like you do trying to pick apart something that wasn’t there,” an irritated Tom Berryhill told Bucknell at one point.

In his testimony before Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew, Tom Berryhill described a darkening political landscape for Republicans as the November 2008 election approached.

Tom Berryhill was cruising to re-election in his safely Republican Modesto-centered Assembly district. But in an adjacent, more evenly matched district, Bill Berryhill, a Ceres farmer, was facing an increasingly tough race against Democrat John Eisenhunt, a Turlock farmer, to keep the seat in Republican hands.

Assembly Democrats had started pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Eisenhunt’s campaign. In addition, polling suggested that Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot would increase Democratic turnout, spelling more trouble for down-ticket Republicans.

“Believe me, at that point in time, every red flag in the world went up,” Tom Berryhill testified. “We needed to hold that seat.”

Later Thursday, former Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines, who oversaw the caucus’ 2008 campaign strategy, vouched for Tom Berryhill’s version of events.

“This tsunami was coming. The central committees would have known exactly what was going on” and moved Tom Berryhill’s money to Bill Berryhill’s campaign on their own, Villines testified.

Bill Berryhill won the 2008 race and served in the Assembly through 2012, when he narrowly lost a race for state Senate. He is scheduled to testify at the administrative hearing next Thursday. Lew is expected to take the case under submission early next month and will then issue a ruling.