Two San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have been accused of laundering $40,000 in a scheme to dodge California’s tough limits on political contributions.
In an accusation filed Oct. 22, the state Fair Political Practices Commission said state Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Modesto Republican, and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, a Stockton Republican, repeatedly had violated campaign finance laws during the 2008 election.
The lawmakers deny wrongdoing and are contesting the charges, said Charles Bell, a lawyer for Tom Berryhill.
The Berryhills are brothers, and in 2008, they were running for the Assembly in adjacent districts.
The commission said that less than a week before the election, Tom Berryhill gave his brother’s campaign $40,000 – more than 11 times the $3,600 donation limit set by state law – to pay for television advertising.
To mask the true source of the funds, the commission contended that Tom Berryhill steered the money through Republican central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, which by law could accept as much as $30,200 per donor.
As soon as they got the money, the county committees funneled it to Bill Berryhill’s campaign, according to the commission. Bill Berryhill then filed reports falsely claiming that the money came from the county committees and not his brother, the commission said.
The commission said the transactions amounted to money laundering – that is, making a contribution in the name of another person. The commission, the state agency that administers California’s Political Reform Act ethics law, is seeking penalties of up to $80,000.
The pattern of donations in the Berryhill brothers’ 2008 campaigns was first reported in a California Watch story in 2010. It detailed how major donors, Republican and Democrat, had begun funneling millions to county political committees in California to avoid the strict donation limits that apply when the money is given directly to candidates.
The Berryhill brothers and the county committees “absolutely dispute” the commission’s allegations, said Bell, who also represents the committees. The committees independently decided to contribute to Bill Berryhill’s campaign and thus no money laundering occurred, he said. He said the lawmakers and the committees have requested a hearing before an administrative law judge to defend themselves against the charges. The hearing is set for June.
Tom Berryhill was elected to the state Senate in 2010. This year, Bill Berryhill ran against Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani for the 5th Senate District seat. The contest still has not been decided. As of Tuesday, Bill Berryhill was leading by about 1,500 votes, as provisional and mail ballots still were being counted.
The lawmakers didn’t respond to phone messages requesting comment.
The commission’s filings quote emails, text messages and interviews with campaign operatives and the lawmakers themselves to portray what it says was an illegal “laundering scheme” to pump money into Bill Berryhill’s campaign.
The Berryhill brothers are San Joaquin Valley farmers and sons of the late Clare Berryhill, a longtime Republican lawmaker who also served as director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture in the 1980s.
Tom Berryhill was first elected to the Assembly in 2006 from Modesto. Two years later, his brother ran for a Stockton Assembly seat.
In the 2008 campaign’s final days, Tom Berryhill seemed assured of re-election, but Bill Berryhill was locked in a tight race with Democrat John Eisenhut, a local rancher. As Election Day loomed, the commission said Bill Berryhill’s campaign manager, Carl Fogliani, began pressuring Tom Berryhill for funds, saying his brother “needed money to help pay for a commercial television campaign attacking his opponent.”
On Oct. 28, Tom Berryhill held a fundraiser, ostensibly to pay for his own re-election, but actually to get money for his brother’s campaign, the commission said. The event produced $50,000. In an exchange of emails the following evening, Tom Berryhill wrote to his brother’s campaign manager, “Think I can get mon(e)y earlier,” the commission said.
The next day, Oct. 30, Tom Berryhill’s campaign committee donated $20,000 to the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, according to the commission. That same day, the committee donated $20,000 to Bill Berryhill’s campaign.
Then, on Oct. 31, Tom Berryhill’s campaign wrote another $20,000 check, this one to the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee. Later that day, upon receipt of the money, the county committee donated $21,000 to Bill Berryhill’s campaign, records show.
In an email describing the donation, San Joaquin County committee Chairman Dale Fritchen wrote that he had “picked up the 20K check,” the commission said. Then, Fritchen wrote, “I met with Bill and they are desperate for money to put out a commercial campaign that they are already committed for.”
Both county committees were accused of one count of money laundering and one count of making a false contribution report.
Tom Berryhill and Bill Berryhill each were accused of nine counts of money laundering, making false reports and violating donation limits.
Tom Berryhill additionally faces two charges of failing to disclose gifts he received in 2008.
The commission said The Walt Disney Co. gave the lawmaker $244 worth of tickets to Disneyland, and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians gave him a $54 ticket to a Keith Urban concert. The gifts weren’t mentioned on his financial disclosure report, the commission said.
Tom Berryhill denies wrongdoing, his lawyer said.
Campaign manager Fogliani wasn’t accused of an offense. He didn’t respond to requests for comment sent via email and Twitter.
California Watch reporter Will Evans contributed to this story.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.