Berryhill brothers subjects of probe

State agency seeing if one violated Prop. 34 to get money to the other

January 6, 2010 

The state Fair Political Practices Commission is reviewing contributions Assemblyman Tom Berryhill of Modesto gave to the Stanislaus County Republican Party to determine whether he illegally steered money to his brother's election bid.

FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter on Wednesday confirmed that the investigation is under way.

Laura Ortega, Berryhill's chief of staff, said he is complying with the review and has turned in documents the FPPC requested.

California Watch, a Web-based investigative journalism outlet, put a spotlight on Berryhill's contributions to county Republican central committees in a piece The Bee published Sunday.

The story drew attention to $25,000 Berryhill gave to the Stanislaus committee on Oct. 27 and 29, 2008. The party delivered $40,000 through two donations on Oct. 30 and 31 to a campaign fund for his brother, Bill Berryhill.

Tom Berryhill also gave $20,000 on Oct. 30 of that year to the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee, which contributed $21,000 to Bill Berryhill's campaign the next day.

Bill Berryhill went on to win a tight race against Democrat John Eisenhut to represent the 26th Assembly District, which covers parts of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

Tom Berryhill represents the 25th Assembly District, a safe Republican seat that includes part or all of Stanislaus, Madera, Mariposa, Mono and Tuolumne counties.

Jim DeMartini, chairman of the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, said Tom Berryhill didn't tell the group how to spend the money he raised for it. DeMartini said he received a letter dated Dec. 14 from the FPPC alerting him to the investigation.

"There's never going to be a letter saying this check is for Assembly(man) whatever his name is, but we know what the hot race is going to be, and when this money comes in, we know where we're going to send our money," DeMartini said.

State law permits donors to contribute up to $3,900 to legislative candidates. Donors can give up to $32,400 to party committees, which can deliver unlimited contributions to candidates.

Those are the terms of Proposition 34, a 2000 ballot measure that was billed as campaign finance reform.

DeMartini argues that the law was designed to have a loophole for party committees to hand big checks to candidates.

"Prop. 34 was written for this purpose," he said. "We're going to support somebody in our district anyway. We're going to protect our seat."

The FPPC's Porter declined to describe any upcoming deadlines for the investigation. He confirmed that it is related to the issues detailed in the California Watch report.

"The investigation has to run its course," he said.

On the Net:

For more information on Proposition 34, go to www.californiawatch.org.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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