April 30, 2014

Our View: Tom Berryhill should pay the fine and get back to work

It’s time for Sen. Tom Berryhill to take responsibility for having broken California’s election rules. He should pay his fine, then get back to the task of getting re-elected.

So the investigator was wrong. The administrative law judge was wrong. The entire Fair Political Practices Commission (which has two Republicans and two Democrats) was wrong. And, we presume, candidate John Eisenhut was wrong, too. That’s the position state Sen. Tom Berryhill is taking. Everyone is wrong … except him.

It’s time for Berryhill to take responsibility for having broken California’s election rules. He should pay his fine, then get back to the task of getting re-elected.

Notice we said he broke election rules. Despite the $40,000 fine imposed by the FPPC, the violations do not rise to the level of arrest, censure or taking other actions against Berryhill and the others involved.

While the rules are clear, his transgression does not reflect an attempt to defraud or even deceive. The rules were broken in the heat of political battle. To use a sports analogy, it’s like a defensive back being flagged for pass interference on the goal line. The resulting penalty is going to be painful, but the game goes on. It’s not as if someone tried to throw the game or shave points or cripple another player. He wasn’t smuggling guns, selling votes or even lying about where he lives.

The case involves a 2008 Tom Berryhill event that raised around $40,000 that was then turned over to the Republican central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Those committees, in turn, passed that money directly to Tom’s brother Bill Berryhill, who was in a tight race with Democrat Eisenhut.

Tom had already given his brother all he could ($3,600), so he used the central committees. But the rules say no one is allowed to direct money given to a committee toward a specific candidate. The FPPC believes everyone knew where the money was headed. That conclusion has been upheld through two levels of appeal.

The money was spent on TV ads that ran three days – accusing Eisenhut of taking a golden parachute from a banking company – and ended the day before the election, leaving Eisenhut no time to respond. Bill Berryhill won by 2 percentage points.

The ensuing fine of $110,000 was severe, but administrative law Judge Jonathan Lew reduced it to a number that matched (perhaps coincidentally) the amount the FPPC says Tom funneled to Bill.

Tom Berryhill’s lawyer says he’s considering taking this to the courts. That is his right. But he should be prepared for a long and costly journey and greater distractions.

We’ve appreciated how Tom Berryhill has performed as a legislator. Instead of being doctrinaire, he has been flexible. Instead of taking every opportunity to bash opponents, he has found ways to work with many of them. Instead of sticking to party platitudes, he has sought changes in immigration policy and water storage priorities and has worked to support agriculture at every turn.

None of that excuses inappropriate conduct in helping his brother win an election. Tom Berryhill, who moved to Twain Harte when district lines were redrawn, comes from a political family. He’s been in the business since 2006. He knows the rules and has no excuse for not playing by them.

After treating these accusations as frivolous and unfounded for the past two years, we urge Tom Berryhill to pay the fines, put this behind him and get back to work as a productive legislator.

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