Former California lawmaker paid for Asia vacation with campaign funds, investigation finds

A former California Assemblyman is facing a $150,000 penalty for years of misusing campaign money for international travel and personal use, according to a Fair Political Practices Commission audit into Joseph Canciamilla’s election committees.

Canciamilla, a Democrat, served in the state Assembly from 2000 to 2006 and was appointed to his post as the Contra Costa County clerk-recorder and registrar of voters in 2013.

The penalty centers on two local fundraising committees he created, one in 2011 while he was a candidate for judge in the county’s Superior Court and the second in 2012 for his latest position.

The Political Reform Audit Program of the Franchise Tax Board initially investigated Canciamilla and noticed irregularities in his campaign finance reporting. The case was turned over to the commission for more in-depth analysis.

The commission discovered that between May 2011 and June 2015, Canciamilla used more than $130,000 in campaign money for personal use.

“This spending included personal travel expenses for a vacation in Asia — as well as unrefunded airfare for Canciamilla and his spouse for a canceled trip to London and Washington, D.C.,” documents show. “Also, this spending included payments for personal credit card charges, which were incurred by Canciamilla in connection with the remodeling of a home that he owned in Hawaii.”

Most of the activity was hidden in a tangle of “non-reporting, over-statement of available cash on hand and other reporting violations.”

The commission is seeking 30 counts of campaign finance violations, with each count carrying a $5,000 fine.

In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, Canciamilla’s attorney said that the former lawmaker and taken “full responsibility for this situation, is humbled and embarrassed, and hopes the FPPC fines won’t severely overshadow his 46 years of public service to the residents of Contra Costa County.”

After Canciamilla resigned from his position on Oct. 31, he told the Bay Area News Group that he did not intend to run for elected office in the future.

When asked why he was resigning, Canciamilla said that he “can’t always plan for everything.”

“Sometimes life just happens,” he said in an emailed statement.

The commission’s Nov. 21 agenda includes Canciamilla’s case, which will be taken up and voted on as a group.

“The audit determined that in 2011, 2014 and 2015, Canciamilla used campaign funds for personal purposes which were unrelated to a political, legislative, or governmental purpose,” the agenda states. “From 2011 through 2019, this activity was concealed on campaign statements by other reporting violations including non-reporting and the over-statement of available cash on hand.”

The alleged misuse of campaign funds represents a potential violation of the Political Reform Act, a 1974 law enacted to monitor campaign finance and lobbying activity.

The law also distinguishes campaign contributions from gifts to ensure that donations are not used personally by the candidate, and enforces rules that campaign funds “must be reasonably related to a political purpose.” Funds cannot be blended with personal finances.

The commission described Canciamilla as a “sophisticated, high-ranking public official,” an attorney and a longtime politician, who should have had complete awareness of regulations under the Political Reform Act.

Canciamilla, who was serving as his own treasurer of both committees for a majority of their existence, has since reimbursed the funds. As a condition of the commission’s proposed settlement, he also filed five years’ worth of corrected campaign statements.

Related stories from Modesto Bee

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.