Even fathers of congressmen must follow the law

Babulal Bera, father of Rep. Ami Bera, walks to the federal courthouse Thursday in Sacramento for sentencing for election fraud.
Babulal Bera, father of Rep. Ami Bera, walks to the federal courthouse Thursday in Sacramento for sentencing for election fraud. The Associated Press

Despite claims to the contrary, we don’t rig elections in this country. Even in this Citizens United era when the rules governing how our democracy is funded are askew, campaign finance laws matter.

And so U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley on Thursday made the emotionally wrought decision to sentence Babulal Bera to prison for 12 months and a day. He will serve 10 months, the judge said.

Bera, 83, bent by age, had admitted to breaking campaign finance laws by laundering $268,726 to help his son, Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, run for Congress in 2010 and, in 2012, win the seat he still holds. His voice cracking ever so slightly, the elder Bera pleaded with Nunley to permit him to remain at his home so he could care for his 82-year-old wife.

“No one else can take care of her like me,” he said. “She won’t be able to live without me.”

The elderly man told of knowing no one when he emigrated here 60 years ago from India, and getting a degree at USC and later a master’s degree in chemical engineering. He spoke of “this beautiful country,” apologized “to the entire country” and swore he would never violate any law again.

The U.S. probation office had recommended against prison time, and Nunley said he considered imposing a fine of $400,000, with no prison. But that would have sent the message to other wealthy people that they could launder campaign money with impunity. Nunley agreed, correctly, with the U.S. attorney’s office that Babulal Bera should receive prison time, plus a $100,000 fine.

“He absolutely was trying to influence the political agenda,” the judge said.

Rep. Bera, who was not in court, has said he was not aware of the scheme. There’s no evidence to the contrary. But Babulal Bera did not make a one-time mistake.

He was brazen, laundering nearly $270,000 by covering the cost of more than 130 donations from more than 90 individual donors to his son. In 2010, individual donors could give a candidate no more than $2,400 for the primary, and $2,400 for the general election. The caps since have been raised to $2,700 per election.

Pundits argue about the wisdom of contribution caps, especially these days when there are no restrictions on the amounts that donors can spend on independent campaigns to sway elections. But rules limiting direct donations to candidates are there for a reason: to limit the perception and reality that any one donor can buy a politician.

Babulal Bera’s fall is, without a doubt, sad. The proud father was trying to do as much as he could for his son. But though it is a tragedy for the Bera clan, the case is not without victims.

Bera unseated Rep. Dan Lungren by a 9,191-vote margin in 2012 after losing to Lungren by 18,000 votes in 2010. Lungren, a Republican who lives in Washington and was not in court, could be considered a victim.

Although no fan of federal campaign limits, Lungren understood the reasoning behind the post-Watergate era restrictions, and abided by them. If he had been able to raise another $200,000, perhaps he’d still be in office.

Bera has depended on donors who are Indian Americans, who gave out of pride that one of their own was a serious congressional candidate. In many instances, they are part of the Beras’ extended family, or come from the part of India where Babulal was born. Babulal Bera’s laundering taints many of those donations. It had a practical impact, too. Ami Bera’s perceived fundraising prowess helped dissuade other Democrats from challenging him in the 2010 or 2012 primaries.

At the end of the hearing, Bera turned and held his wife, who cried quietly. They left holding hands. He must report to prison Nov. 18, about a month after he turns 84 and 10 days after Election Day. As a felon, he will forfeit the right to vote, fitting for someone who tried to rig an election, even if it was for the love of a son.