Federal officials said repeatedly Tuesday their nearly 18-month investigation turned up no evidence that Democratic Rep. Ami Bera knew of his father’s illegal activity on behalf of his campaigns before they approached the congressman with questions last October.
But convincing prosecutors and voters are two different things, said those familiar with the dynamics of the closely fought 7th Congressional District, which for years has been a key square on the national political chessboard.
Babulal “Bob” Bera’s bombshell role in sidestepping campaign finance laws spanned two election cycles and involved dozens of donors. He admitted to making campaign contributions that exceeded the legal maximum by funneling the money through family members, friends and acquaintances.
Previous news reports had highlighted unusual, if not illegal, political contributions by the elder Bera involving other Democratic campaigns across the United States.
As the younger Bera battles Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to retain control of the suburban swing district, campaign experts said it will be exceedingly difficult for him to separate himself from his father’s two felony counts of election fraud.
“This type of thing is a huge hit for any candidate,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It’s damaging enough when the money comes from a supporter, but when it’s the candidate’s own father, it’s that much worse.”
Schnur stressed that the elder Bera’s illicit activity doesn’t “guarantee Jones’ election,” suggesting that Jones’ avowed support for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the November election poses a political liability of its own.
“But this takes a race that should be leaning in Bera’s direction and makes it much harder to predict,” Schnur said. “Whether it’s fair or not, the overwhelming majority of voters simply won’t believe that he was unaware of what his own father was doing.”
Babulal Bera admitted that during his son’s 2010 and 2012 congressional campaigns against Republican incumbent Dan Lungren, he solicited contributions to Ami Bera’s committee, and then reimbursed donors with his own money. Some $268,726 was contributed by the straw donors during the two campaigns.
In an interview Tuesday, Ami Bera said he has redirected the money to the U.S. Treasury and stressed that he had no suspicions about his father’s actions. He described Babulal Bera, a retired chemical engineer, as a respected elder in the Indian community.
“I wish he had reached out to the campaign,” Bera said, adding that he could have recommended legal ways to assist.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, who leads the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said such cases of violating campaign finance laws are increasingly rare because of how blatant they are – “particularly when there are so many legal ways to get money to a politician.”
Donors who wish to steer money behind a particular politician can pursue several avenues, including creating an independent expenditure committee. Levinson said that though it’s incumbent on each campaign to inspect donors and ensure their viability, that doesn’t mean it’s possible to discover all wrongdoing.
Still, she believes the campaign finance case will affect Bera.
“In an era of very low education and information, people remember terms like “scandal,” and “plea,” and “money laundering,” Levinson said. “This definitely arms the opposition. At the very least they will raise these kind of questions.”
National Republicans openly questioned Bera’s lack of knowledge about his father’s scheme. Zach Hunter, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said it “defies belief that Rep. Bera was unaware of these activities, and 7th District voters deserve to know the truth.”
Jones issued a statement in response to the plea expressing his faith in the U.S. attorney’s office.
“We need to allow the investigation and the justice system to discover all the facts and reach their conclusions,” Jones said.
“My campaign is – and will remain – concentrated on talking to voters in the 7th District about issues that impact their families and our country; public safety, the need for a stronger economy and more jobs, and our nation’s security.”
Bera said he’s concerned about his parents. And he promised to press on.
“If I do my job and represent the district, then the voters tend to re-elect you,” he said. “So I will continue to do my job.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would not specifically address the matter. Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, said Bera would “continue to be a strong representative” for the district.
Bera’s 7th District, which covers Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom, has been home to one of the nation’s most competitive races, in part because of the narrow, 3 percentage point advantage Democrats hold in registered voters. Bera, always a prolific fundraiser, emerged on the local political scene in 2010, when he lost to Lungren. Bera won a rematch two years later.
Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant who worked for Lungren, said he raised questions about the speed with which Bera was able to stockpile contributions. It was too much money too quickly from people who didn’t look to be typical donors, Stutzman said.
“It is completely not credible for him to not realize this was going on,” he said. “If he didn’t know, he’s not qualified to be in Congress because he is felony stupid.”
In 2014, Bera clinched a second term by 1,455 votes over Republican Doug Ose, a former congressman. During that campaign, which became the nation’s most expensive House race, Ose and his aides periodically raised questions about Bera’s fundraising clip, but they lacked proof that he was doing anything wrong.
Before the June primary, Ose’s campaign shared a Philadelphia Inquirer story with the subject line “Is Rep. Ami Bera engaged in questionable fundraising tactics?” The story detailed a pattern of candidates’ parents, including Bera’s, swapping nearly identical contributions to each others’ children in tight congressional races. Experts said the practice didn’t violate any laws, but could be a way to skirt campaign finance limits.
Ose was at the federal courthouse Tuesday to, as he described it, observe justice. Asked if Bera would be in Congress had the money laundering not happened, Ose, who spent millions of his own money during the unsuccessful challenge, posed a related inquiry of his own.
“I think the fairer question is would he be in Congress if the voters knew this was going on when he first got elected,” Ose said.
He added: “The answer is ‘no.’ ”