SACRAMENTO -- A campaign finance watchdog panel decided Thursday to levy $40,000 in fines against state Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) and two GOP committees after concluding that the senator laundered a like amount of political funds to his brother's 2008 Assembly campaign.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission voted unanimously to uphold an administrative law judge's ruling that Berryhill committed a "serious and deliberate" violation of campaign finance laws.
The FPPC decided after a 20-minute closed session to also fine the Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County Republican central committees for their role as conduits to pass $40,000 from Berryhill to the Assembly campaign of Bill Berryhill.
"This case is about cheating in elections," said Gary Winuk, the chief of enforcement for the FPPC. "The Berryhills intentionally violated the public's limits on campaign contributions to gain an unfair electoral advantage. This is one of the most significant cases we have prosecuted."
Charles H. Bell Jr., an attorney for Berryhill, said the case may end up in court.
"We believe the FPPC applied the wrong legal standard to this and we are evaluating our legal options about what to do," Bell said. "We continue to deny that there was any earmarking of the funds."
Berryhill has the ability to challenge the fines in court, according to Winuk. "Otherwise they need to pay the penalty or face collections action from us," Winuk said.
"To the extent you circumvent campaign finance laws and you do it knowingly, this is serious," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in government ethics. "It looks like there was an intentional setup to flaunt the law."
Berryhill becomes the fourth senator in recent months to be accused of misconduct, although unlike the other three, he does not face criminal charges.
Last month, the Senate suspended Democratic Sens. Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello, Leland Yee of San Francisco and Roderick Wright of the Inglewood area after they were hit with criminal charges. Wright was found guilty of lying about living in his Senate district, while Calderon and Yee have been indicted by federal authorities in separate cases for offering legislative favors for money.
Having a fourth case of misconduct reflects poorly on the Senate, Levinson said, although she does not think Berryhill's actions rise to the level of the criminal allegations against Yee and Calderon.
The scheme by Tom Berryhill disguised the true source of the money received by Bill Berryhill's campaign and allowed Sen. Berryhill to circumvent the $3,600 contribution limit to a legislative candidate.
Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew heard testimony from both sides in November and concluded that "by their nature, the violations involved an intention to conceal, deceive or mislead."
Charles H. Bell Jr., an attorney for Sen. Berryhill, argued that the judge applied the wrong legal standards and that there was no agreement to pass the money on.