Editorials

Bera family tragedy can’t excuse illegality

Babulal Bera, the father of Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, leaves the federal courthouse on Tuesday. The elder Bera pleaded guilty in federal court today to two counts of campaign finance violations.
Babulal Bera, the father of Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, leaves the federal courthouse on Tuesday. The elder Bera pleaded guilty in federal court today to two counts of campaign finance violations. rpench@sacbee.com

Rep. Ami Bera’s father must have been intensely proud when his son was elected to Congress in 2012. And as Babulal Bera pleaded guilty Tuesday to the federal crime of laundering campaign money to help his son to victory, it must have been intensely painful to know that he could now cost Bera his seat in 2016.

Bera’s father is 83, and his legal problems are sad. The law, however, is what’s important.

The post-Watergate rule the elder Bera broke is on the books for a reason. It imposes a hard cap on donations to candidates to avoid the reality and appearance of corruption. One of the few pieces of campaign finance law not overturned by federal courts in recent years, the hard cap is not complicated. In 2010, donors were barred from contributing more than $2,400 per election to a candidate. In 2012, the cap was $2,500.

Babulal Bera and his wife, Kanta, each gave their son the maximum. He also solicited money from at least 90 other people, presumably friends and family. If they couldn’t afford to give, he would reimburse them, more than $265,000, rendering the cap meaningless. It’s called laundering, and it’s illegal.

Bera appeared in U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley’s courtroom with a cane and spoke with the aid of an interpreter, although he also walked without the cane and answered several questions in English.

Bera’s father is 83, and his legal problems are sad. The law, however, is what’s important.

“I have done the crime,” he said, to his credit, pleading guilty to two counts of violating federal campaign finance law.

We cannot know whether the elder Bera knew what he was doing. But in Federal Election Commission filings, Babulal Bera, a retired chemical engineer, and his wife have disclosed donating $483,000 between 2009 and 2015 to their son and to other Democratic congressional candidates and federal campaigns. That amount suggests political sophistication. Few donors would know how to target such sums without the advice of political veterans.

Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said there is “no indication from what we’ve learned” that Bera or his staff knew about his father’s illegal activities. On Tuesday, the congressman wrote a check from his campaign account to the U.S. Treasury for the full amount his father laundered.

The congressman told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that he first learned about the investigation when FBI agents interviewed him in October. He said he didn’t publicly disclose it or discuss it with his parents on the advice of his lawyer and because he didn’t want to interfere with the investigation.

Fine. But knowing the allegations would surface and damage his party’s chance of holding the seat, along with creating turmoil in his district, he did have other options. He also could have decided against running, allowing his constituents to be represented by another candidate.

Certainly candidates get busy. But smart candidates make clear to their volunteers, paid staff, and family that they must adhere to the rules, noted Dan Lungren, the Republican Bera beat in 2012.

“We played by the rules and somebody wasn’t playing by the rules,” Lungren told an editorial board member, upon learning of Bera’s father’s guilty plea.

Bera raised about $4.7 million in individual contributions to his failed 2010 campaign and victorious 2012 campaign. The $268,000 his father laundered amounts to 5.7 percent. That’s not a lot, but it’s not insignificant either. It meant Bera had extra money to pay for mailers and other campaign efforts.

Perhaps more importantly, this case calls into doubt the legitimacy of Bera’s donor base. His perceived fundraising prowess scared off other Democrats from mounting primary campaigns against him.

No one will ever know whether Bera would have originally won the seat without his father’s illegal help. But now that the truth is coming out, it surely will hurt Bera in 2016.

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