Tom and Bill Berryhill have solid records as state legislators, so it's troubling to learn that they face serious accusations of violating state election laws, including laundering campaign money.
The Fair Political Practices Commission has filed 16 complaints against the brothers and their individual campaign committees, all related to money contributed and received in 2008 and 2009. The Republican Central Committees of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are each named in two of the 16 counts. (Some counts name multiple parties.) Each count carries a potential fine of $5,000.
The amount of money alleged in the campaign laundering accusations $41,000 is not large compared with the millions spent in the 2012 campaigns, but the 28-page complaint by FPPC focuses not on size but only truthfulness. The complaint alleges that Tom Berryhill used the two county central committees as a way to funnel more money to Bill Berryhill's Assembly campaign treasury than Tom would have been allowed to contribute as an individual.
The money was collected at a Tom Berryhill fund-raising event in late October 2008, according to the FPPC complaint, and within a couple of days it had ended up in Bill's campaign treasury to be used to pay for a last-minute TV commercial against his opponent.
The FPPC complaint doesn't address much about the race itself, which Bill Berryhill narrowly won with about 51 percent of the vote over Democrat John Eisenhut.
Eisenhut raised about $1.1 million in that race, with about $500,000 of that coming late in the campaign from the Democratic Party. According to the campaign financial reports that he filed, Bill Berryhill raised about $1.6 million for his 2008 race, includes loans to himself totaling $690,000. Berryhill's biggest contributors were the state Republican Party, with two donations of $25,000 each, and the Republican Central Committees in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, with $21,000 and $20,000, respectively. Those two county committee donations are the ones that the FPPC alleges were laundered.
Eisenhut told us Friday that he was not aware of an FPPC investigation and had not seen the written FPPC complaint. But he did recall the late-hit TV commercial. It accused Eisenhut of getting a golden parachute from a bank CEO job and of being involved in the type of predatory lending that had resulted in foreclosures. Both were hot topics in late 2008.
The ad ran on the weekend and Monday before the Nov. 4 election. Eisenhut said that the attacks were completely unfounded and the timing gave him no time to refute or respond. He believes that the ad might have had an impact on the election outcome.
Neither Berryhill returned calls from the reporter for California Watch, which broke this story last week. An attorney representing them said they deny any wrongdoing and contest the charges. In response to an e-mail inquiry on Friday, Tom Berryhill said he expects to "beat this witch hunt."
An FPPC investigator and attorney presented their findings at a probable cause conference Sept. 20. The FPPC commission counsel ordered the case to go before an administrative law judge, in a hearing scheduled in June. The judge would have 60 days to rule, which would send the matter to the FPPC in the fall of 2013. The timing is significant for Tom Berryhill, whose Senate term expires in 2014 and who, if he decides to run again, will be gearing up for that campaign in the fall of 2013.
But an FPPC official said these types of cases often are resolved through a settlement before they reach the hearing.
The FPPC another state agency with more work to do than staff to do it is giving highest priority these days to serious cases, and money laundering is a serious charge. The state's Political Reform Act, passed by voters in 1974, is intended to assure that campaign contributions and expenditures are fully and truthfully disclosed.
It's important to note that Tom and Bill Berryhill and the two county committees have not been found guilty of anything at this point. They and the public will benefit from having these charges fully and fairly analyzed.