Berryhill brothers accused of campaign money laundering

amantz@sacbee.comJune 14, 2013 

— As interest swirls around the Calderon brothers after federal agents raided state Sen. Ron Calderon's office last week, California's ethics agency has set its sights on another pair of brothers in California politics.

The Fair Political Practice Commission has accused Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and former Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of laundering more than $40,000 of campaign contributions in 2008.

In administrative charges filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings in October 2012, the FPPC alleges that Tom Berryhill laundered contributions to his brother's 2008 Assembly campaign through two county central committees. The FPPC also accused the Republican central committees from Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties of "aiding and abetting" the effort.

Although most officials cited by the FPPC agree to a fine and settle with the commission, the Berryhill brothers and the central committees have denied the allegations and will try to fight the charges before a judge. The administrative hearing, originally scheduled for Monday, has been pushed back to November, according to FPPC officials.

Eileen Ricker, Tom Berryhill's communications director, said the senator "steadfastly denies any accusations filed against him." Bill Berryhill had no comment but has denied the allegations through his lawyer.

In 2008, the Berryhill brothers ran for Assembly in neighboring districts. Polls showed Tom Berryhill pulling ahead of his opponent, but Bill Berryhill and Democrat John Eisenhunt were locked in a close race.

Court documents allege that Tom Berryhill made $20,000 donations of his campaign funds to both the Stanislaus Republican Central Committee and the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee. Each committee then allegedly funneled the money directly into Bill Berryhill's campaign coffers — all within a 24-hour period.

The commission claims that by donating the $40,000 to the two committees, Tom Berryhill evaded the $3,600 cap on individual donations to his brother's campaign while concealing the source of the money.

Charles Bell, the Sacramento attorney representing all of those charged, said his clients are innocent of all charges and called the accusation "meritless." Bell said Tom Berryhill's two $20,000 donations were routine contributions to the Republican Party. The committees, Bell said, acted like any other party committee would by donating to Bill Berryhill's struggling campaign.

"Party committees on both sides are very active in targeted races," Bell said.

But the commission claims that Tom Berryhill earmarked the funds he donated for his brother's campaign, which is forbidden by state law.

The FPPC cites emails between Tom Berryhill and Carl Fogliani, Bill Berryhill's campaign manager, and between Tom Berryhill, Bill Berryhill and chairmen of both committees as evidence of collusion. The accusation also quotes from an email from Dale Fritchen, then-chairman of the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee.

Fritchen's email said he "picked up the 20K check" and acknowledges contact with Bill Berryhill.

"Lets give 21K to Bill Berryhill," Fritchen said in the email. "They are willing to take a check. I met with Bill and they are desperate for money to put out a commercial campaign that they are already committed for."

The accusation also charges Tom Berryhill with failing to disclose two gifts — park tickets given by The Walt Disney Co. and Keith Urban concert tickets given by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians — on his 2008 statement of economic interest.

Bell contended that the two organizations actually gave the gifts to one of Tom Berryhill's staff members, who listed them on their own disclosure form. He said Berryhill was not required to disclose them as gifts under the 2008 version of the Political Reform Act.

Bell said that though the law has changed to streamline the definition of gifts that must be disclosed since 2008, the instances that the FPPC cited in their accusation were not violations of the Political Reform Act at the time.

"They're charging us with what might have been a violation in 2010 but what wasn't a violation in 2008," Bell said.

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