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Commerce Councilwoman tentatively agrees to pay $55,000 fine over ethics law violations

Commerce Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio, left, has tentatively agreed to pay a $55,000 penalty for multiple violations of the state political ethics law.
(La Mirada Lamplighter)

Commerce Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio will pay a $55,000 fine and admit to multiple violations of the state’s political ethics law under a possible deal reached Thursday with state election regulators.

The development comes as the Fair Political Practices Commission was scheduled to vote on a $104,000 penalty against Baca Del Rio for 24 counts of violating the Political Reform Act.

They included allegations that she spent campaign funds on a kitchen remodel and improperly transferred more than $8,000 from her campaign into her personal bank account.

Baca Del Rio was in Sacramento for Thursday’s commission meeting to plead her case, but went into private negotiations with FPPC officials while the commission deliberated other business.

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More than an hour later, an FPPC attorney told the commission that a tentative understanding had been reached.

Under the proposed terms Baca Del Rio would admit to only half of the 24 counts. All but four of the charges were related to allegations that she filed campaign finance disclosures late, or failed to file them at all. Only one count of misusing campaign funds would be dropped.

In response to the proposed six-figure penalty, Baca Del Rio wrote a letter to the commission saying that she didn’t fully understand the process that led to action against her. According to FPPC documents, she missed deadlines to respond to the agency’s communications and settle the matter.

In her July 18 letter, Baca Del Rio acknowledged that some of the allegations in the original 24 counts were true, but that there were also “inaccuracies.”

She read the documents the FPPC had sent to her, but she missed the part about the deadline to respond because it was “hidden away behind exhibits” she thought she had seen previously, her letter said. After rereading the documents and discovering the deadline, she asked FPPC Chief of Enforcement Galena West for an extension but was refused, she wrote.

Baca Del Rio also denied that she misappropriated campaign funds and said that she was merely paying herself back for money she had loaned to her campaign. FPPC investigators had concluded that Baca Del Rio had never made the loans she recorded on paper.

“Based on the circumstances above, I beg that you give me the opportunity for a hearing,” the councilwoman wrote.

Commissioners agreed to take up the matter in 30 days but made it clear that Baca Del Rio would need to submit a check for $55,000 by then, and that the commissioners could still approve the $104,000 penalty or increase the $55,000 fine if they read the settlement and conclude it is too light.

Part of that penalty can be paid from campaign funds, but the portion that is related to misusing campaign funds must come from her own pocket.

“We still have 100% authority to reject the stipulation,” said FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke.

The largest penalty levied against a sitting local elected official before the Baca Del Rio case was $50,000, said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga. In 1988, the watchdog agency fined a Sacramento County supervisor $290,000 after he left office, Wierenga added.

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

Click here for a Spanish version of this story

Adam.Elmahrek@latimes.com

Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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