The father of Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Sacramento federal court to two felony counts of election fraud involving the finances of his son’s campaign committee.
Babulal Bera admitted to U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley that during his son’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns for Congress he recruited friends, family members and acquaintances to make contributions to the committee and reimbursed them with his own money.
A plea agreement says $268,726 was contributed by the straw donors during the two campaigns. All but $5,326 coming directly or indirectly from Babulal Bera was given back to the donors.
Bera, 83, a retired engineer, admitted to hiding the bulk of the contributions through the kickback scheme in order to exceed the legal maximum on individual contributions under federal election laws.
The names of the donors and the amounts attributed to them would have appeared among dozens of others on Ami Bera’s filings with the Federal Election Commission, acting U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said, but the information was not in the plea agreement.
With respect to the two elections, “the government has identified over 130 improper campaign contributions involving approximately 90 contributors,” according to the written plea agreement given to Nunley during Tuesday’s hearing.
Talbert said that the investigation is ongoing but repeatedly noted that in the nearly 18 months of the probe no evidence was turned up “indicating that Congressman Bera nor any of his staff” were aware of Babulal Bera’s illegal shuffling of campaign contributions.
Ami Bera, who lost the 2010 race, but won in 2012 and 2014, said he knew nothing about his father’s scheme. “I wish we knew what he was doing. I wish somebody had told me, because we would have put a stop to it,” the congressman said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Sacramento Bee.
Ami Bera said his father has been an “active fundraiser. I think he was excited that his son was running for Congress ... I am devastated that this happened.”
Talbert said there is no evidence that Babulal Bera, of La Palma in Orange County, was engaged in the criminal activity after early June 2012, more than two years before the tip came to the FBI in November 2014. Talbert said Babulal Bera drew individuals “from all over the country” into his scheme as bogus donors. “It was from the West Coast to the East Coast,” Talbert said.
Court papers describe how Babulal Bera and his wife first made the maximum allowable individual contributions to Ami Bera’s campaign committee and then recruited others to make maximum contributions. Then he reimbursed them out of his own pocket. Talbert said that as part of the plea bargain the government agreed not to charge Babulal Bera’s wife.
The top prosecutor said agents interviewed 75 witnesses, “some more than once,” including some of the people Babulal Bera used as straw donors. He also said Ami Bera and members of his staff were interviewed in October and Babulal Bera was interviewed by the FBI the same month.
Ami Bera said Tuesday that he “has not talked to my dad about the investigation” since then.
Talbert said a decision has not been made whether to charge any of the straw donors, who “obviously knew what was going on.”
Babulal Bera is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 4 by Nunley.
The small, bespectacled, white-haired defendant was dressed in a dark business suit with a contrasting blue striped tie. He leaned forward and listened intently to the proceedings as they were relayed to him through an interpreter in Gujarati, an Indo-Aryan language native to the state of Gujarat in India.
The maximum sentence on each of the two felony counts to which Babulal Bera pleaded guilty is five years in prison.
John Vincent, chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office, told Nunley at the plea hearing that prosecutors have agreed to recommend to the judge no more than 2 1/2 years.
The excessive-contributions charge carries a fine of $250,000. The count charging Babulal Bera with giving contributions under another name carries a fine that is determined using the amount of money involved in the offense. Vincent said that fine will probably be around $130,000.
Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189