September 14, 2013

Stanislaus County GOP addresses internal turmoil with new bylaws

Republican Party leaders in Stanislaus County have a new tool for dealing with their own dissenters, such as those asking questions about a state investigation into their finances.

Republican Party leaders in Stanislaus County have a new tool for dealing with their own dissenters, such as those asking questions about a state investigation into their finances.

The deeply divided party’s central committee recently approved new bylaws making it easier to kick off members and alternates. One provision allows removal for no reason if two-thirds of voting members agree.

The change is aimed at quieting “disruptive” members, said Chairman Jim DeMartini, accusing internal detractors of airing the party’s laundry with state and federal ethics investigators and the press.

“They’ve either got to change their ways or face removal,” said DeMartini, who also is an elected county supervisor.

Micah Rapier, an alternate central committee member, said party leaders demand blind obedience. Their brand of unity, he said, “can only survive in ignorance and apathy.”

A California Fair Political Practices Commission probe of the committee’s involvement with a big-money campaign fund is ongoing, an investigator said. Other questions from the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C., also continue. The FEC on Sept. 4 issued another written request for clarifying information about campaign finances – the 16th such demand in two years.

An Aug. 18 Bee report revealed that some committee members were not aware that their account has been used for two years by state party leaders to channel $1.7 million from wealthy donors to candidates throughout California. DeMartini maintains that the practice is legal and was approved in advance by the state ethics agency.

The current investigation does not appear related to a case coming to trial in November in which the FPPC claims that the central committee laundered $40,000 from Sen. Tom Berryhill to his brother Bill, helping him win a close Assembly race in 2008.

About a year after the FPPC started investigating the Berryhills in 2010, party leaders created the California Republican Leadership Fund with central committees in three counties: San Luis Obispo, Tulare and Stanislaus. The fund is both the vehicle for funneling big money and the target of the current investigation. Restrictions approved by California voters in 2000 limit donors from giving more than $4,100 directly to a candidate, per election. But donors can give as much as they want to entities such as the Leadership Fund.

Members of the local group turned on their committee by going to state investigators in the current probe, DeMartini said. Most dissenters, he said, are nonelected, nonvoting alternates “who didn’t come with good intentions. They’re just fishing for something to complain about.”

One member accused committee leaders in charge of finances of “incompetent or criminal activity,” according to minutes of the central committee’s Aug. 5 meeting.

Leaders’ response was to draft new rules enabling them to get rid of whistle-blowers, some said. A few asked to remain unidentified for fear of being targeted under the new bylaws.

DeMartini said the bylaws had not been amended since 1997. He and others said new rules were modeled after those in Orange County, a Republican stronghold in the liberal state.

The bylaws allow termination of a member who “affiliates with,” “supports” or “avows a preference for a candidate of a different party,” or for no reason if two-thirds of members agree. Also, “any member who brings or assists in bringing a legal or administrative action against the California Republican Party, the (local party) or its officers instead of (using internal remedies) is automatically removed” from the central committee.

The central committee last year refused to endorse Kristin Olsen for re-election to the Assembly because some of her family members had supported Garrad Marsh’s successful campaign for the nonpartisan seat of mayor of Modesto. The party also has given grief to Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, a Republican but not a central committee member, for endorsing Democrats Dennis Cardoza and Adam Gray.

Short of expulsion, members can also face such penalties as bans from serving on subcommittees, loss of access to financial records and bans on speaking at meetings, the bylaws say. The rules also specify that “all business” of the central committee is conducted in closed session.

The committee meeting, held Monday, started in open session with public questioning of Republican candidates for local nonpartisan races on the Nov. 5 ballot. The committee then excluded The Bee and other public attendees before approving the draft bylaws and addressing other matters.

Members said some urged postponing the vote because several people said they had not received a draft copy of the bylaws and had no time for review. But the vote was called and only two members cast “no” votes, they said.

“I just think they were presented in a manner that they shouldn’t have been,” said committee member April Premo.

“I felt it was focusing too much on getting rid of people,” Grant Hurst said. Pat Bicknell agreed, saying discussion Monday seemed rushed. Both are alternates who served on the bylaws subcommittee.

Member Bill Mussman said, “It wasn’t like a significant body of people did not agree with it. ... It’s unfortunate there is dissension. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get everybody on the same page and pulling in the same direction again.”

Josh Whitfield, a Waterford City Council candidate and central committee member, said, “I’m focused on moving forward,” while committee member John Freeman said, “This is just a bunch of sensationalism.” Both declined further comment.

No removals were proposed Monday, members said.

After helping to create the California Republican Leadership Fund, the Stanislaus County central committee received huge amounts of money from entities known for currying political favor, including oil and insurance companies, Indian tribes and billionaire Charles Munger. The committee last year funneled $320,000 to Bill Berryhill’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in addition to others in Southern California.

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