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Commerce councilwoman faces state’s largest-ever penalty against a sitting local elected official

California election regulators are proposing the largest-ever financial penalty against a sitting local elected official in the case of City of Commerce Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio, who is accused of illegally transferring campaign funds into her personal bank account, among other violations.

Baca Del Rio is facing a $104,000 judgment from the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The extraordinary action comes after the commission has accused her of wrongdoing in the past. Officials also allege she missed deadlines to respond to the allegations and come to a negotiated settlement with the watchdog agency.

It’s also a rare case of the commission proposing a default action against a politician. Public officials accused of wrongdoing by the commission usually settle with the watchdog on an agreed fine. Baca Del Rio’s penalty, for example, dwarfs the $40,000 fine levied in 2011 on former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who agreed to a settlement, for failing to disclose free tickets to sports and entertainment events.

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If Baca Del Rio doesn’t pay the judgment, the watchdog could try and take other actions to collect, such as placing a lien against her house.

In an interview, Baca Del Rio said she has been responsive to commission officials, that the proposed judgment took her by surprise and that she was waiting for a call back from an official working with her on the case. She also said the complaint filed with the agency against her that triggered the investigation was politically motivated and orchestrated by an opposing faction.

“I didn’t even know of this information until just a few minutes ago,” Baca Del Rio said in reference to the proposed penalty.

The proposed judgment represents the latest political challenge for the working-class, predominately Latino city of 12,000 residents located southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Since 2010, two City of Commerce councilmen have pleaded guilty to criminal charges over separate allegations, a scheme to hide the true source of campaign contributions and the signing of a false affidavit in support of an attorney suing the city.

Baca Del Rio — who was recalled from the Commerce City Council in the 2008 general election, and then reelected the very next year — is accused of violating the state’s Political Reform Act on 24 counts, most of them for not timely and properly filing campaign finance disclosures between 2011 and 2013, or failing to file them at all. Four of those violations stem from allegations that she spent campaign funds on a home kitchen remodel and also transferred $8,134 in campaign cash into her personal bank account.

Of the total fine, $20,000 is for allegedly misusing campaign funds. It’s the part of the fine that she can’t use campaign funds to pay, meaning it will have to come from her own pocket.

According to commission documents, Baca Del Rio recorded on public filings personal loans to her campaign committee and subsequent repayments of those loans, which, if true, would be legal. But investigators gathered her bank records and found no evidence that the loans on paper existed. The agency gave her “ample opportunity” to prove she made the loans, the documents state.

Baca Del Rio denied those allegations about abusing campaign funds to a reporter, saying that her loans to the campaign were real and that she had a right to pay herself back. She also said the money spent on renovations was an innocent mix-up — the bank cards for her personal account and her campaign fund look nearly identical. She claims to have paid the misspent money back to the campaign and that she provided the information to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

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While the penalty against Baca Del Rio is the largest ever against a sitting local elected official in California, the watchdog agency has issued bigger fines over statewide issues. In 2014, Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat agreed to a $133,000 fine over prohibited campaign contributions and illegal gifts to state lawmakers. The commission also levied a $1-million fine in 2013 against a group with ties to the Koch brothers for not properly disclosing $15 million spent on a pair of state ballot proposals.

In a previous case against Baca Del Rio in 2011, the commission fined her $26,000 for not filing her campaign disclosures by state deadlines.

The commission is scheduled to approve the judgment at its July 21 meeting.

adam.elmahrek@latimes.com

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Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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