SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Tom Berryhill testified Thursday that he suggested donors support his brothers 2008 Assembly campaign by giving money to the Republican Central Committee of Stanislaus County. But he insisted there was no agreement that the committee would pass the funds to Bill Berryhill.
The Stanislaus committee was a solid group, he said, and could be trusted to support the right candidates.
GOP leaders red-flagged the tight Assembly race between Bill Berryhill and Democrat John Eisenhut shortly before the November 2008 election because Eisenhut suddenly received about $1 million from party loyalists, allowing him to flood mailboxes, TV and radio with ads. Barack Obamas march to the White House was believed to be jeopardizing GOP seats across the state.
Bill was the only game in town, Tom Berryhill said, meaning it made sense for the Stanislaus committee to make sure the seat was protected.
The Fair Political Practices Commission charges that the Berryhill brothers broke state laws in 2008 by laundering $40,000 in campaign money through the Republican central committees of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
It alleges they ran afoul of earmarking rules, which prohibit a person from contributing to a committee with the agreement that the money will be contributed to a particular candidate.
Tom Berryhill, then an assemblyman, held an event Oct. 28, 2008, that raised $50,000 for his own campaign in a safe district. Two days later, he gave $20,000 to the Republican Central Committee of Stanislaus County. He sent another $20,000 to the San Joaquin committee on Oct. 31.
Bill Berryhill received $20,000 from the Stanislaus group and $21,000 from the San Joaquin committee on the same days they received his brothers contributions.
Neal Bucknell, an attorney for the FPPC, claims that Tom Berryhill used the committees to conceal an illegal $40,000 gift to his brothers campaign. Tom Berryhill had already given $3,600 to his brother, the maximum allowed at that time. The legal limit on committee contributions to a candidate was $30,200.
As an administrative hearing entered a third day, Tom Berryhill was questioned about an Oct. 28 fundraiser at the Del Rio home of the late Matt Bruno.
Tom Berryhill didnt need the cash; he usually gave his campaign money to numerous committees and candidates in the state as a major fundraiser for the Republican caucus, he said. He acknowledged he introduced his brother to the 100 guests and said Bill needed support.
He told donors that if they had reached the $3,600 limit, another avenue was the Stanislaus committee.
Diane Stone Gilbert, a campaign fundraising consultant who organized the event, said such fundraisers were planned five or six weeks in advance, which would have been well before Bill Berryhills seat was in jeopardy.
Bucknell referred to emails, text messages and phone calls between Tom Berryhill, committee officials and his brothers campaign consultant as potential evidence the politician was telling the committee how to spend the funds.
Citing the elapsed time, Tom Berryhill said he couldnt explain what was meant by some elliptical messages, but he agreed with his attorneys suggestion they likely concerned logistics and campaign tactics.
Berryhill talked about a call that October from former Assembly minority leader Mike Villines, who said $100,000 needed to be raised for TV ads to secure victory for his brother. When it was his turn on the stand, Villines said he couldnt remember the call.
Villines testified that state GOP leaders gave information about targeted races to central committees, but the committees made the decisions on allocating funds to campaigns. In a response to a question from Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew, Villines said he didnt think the party had a system for tracking funds distributed by central committees.
Lew will decide whether theres evidence showing that Tom Berryhill told the Stanislaus and San Joaquin groups how to spend the $40,000. He will make recommendations to the FPPC, the agency that enforces laws on conflicts of interest, lobbying and political donations. Fines up to $80,000 could be assessed against the Berryhill brothers and the two committees, also named as defendants.
Tom Berryhill said he took the less-traveled road of contesting FPPC charges to protect his familys reputation.
In a separate case, the Stanislaus committee is under investigation after funneling $1.7 million to candidates throughout California at the behest of state party leaders.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.