SACRAMENTO — State authorities Thursday imposed $40,000 in fines against Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) and two GOP committees after finding that the lawmaker laundered that amount of political money into 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 California's campaign finance laws.
The commissioners decided in a 20-minute closed session to include in the fines the Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County Republican central committees for their role as conduits in passing $40,000 from Berryhill to his brother's successful campaign.
"This case is about cheating in elections," said Gary Winuk, 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."
Berryhill and others involved can challenge the fines in court, Winuk said. "Otherwise they need to pay the penalty or face collections action from us."
Charles H. Bell Jr., an attorney for Berryhill, said the case may well end up in court.
"We believe the FPPC applied the wrong legal standard to this, and we are evaluating our legal options," Bell said. "We continue to deny that there was any earmarking of the funds."
Berryhill is the fourth senator in recent months to be accused of misconduct, although unlike the other three he has not been charged with any crimes.
Last month, the Senate suspended three Democrats — Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello, Leland Yee of San Francisco and Roderick Wright, who represents an Inglewood-area district — as they were fighting criminal charges. Wright was found guilty of lying about living in his Senate district; Calderon and Yee have been indicted by federal authorities in separate cases for taking bribes and other offenses.
"This is No. 4," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in government ethics. "California state senators are starting to look like the poster boys for politicians behaving badly."
Levinson said Berryhill's violation appears not to be as serious as the allegation against Yee that he conspired to traffic in illegal firearms and the charges against Calderon that he engaged in a pattern of accepting money in return for political favors. Still, she said she would not be surprised if the Senate sought sanctions against Berryhill.
"To the extent you circumvent campaign finance laws and you do it knowingly, this is serious," Levinson said. "It looks like there was an intentional setup to [flout] the law."
The scheme by Tom Berryhill disguised the true source of the money received by Bill Berryhill's campaign, the FPPC concluded, and allowed Sen. Berryhill to circumvent the law's $3,600 limit on donations to legislative candidates.
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."