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Fair Political Practices Commission

State lawmaker brothers accused of money laundering

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.


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State political watchdog to investigate another health district official

California's political watchdog agency is investigating a Fremont health care district official to determine whether he violated the state’s conflict-of-interest laws.

Michael Wallace, president of the Washington Township Health Care District board, is also the chairman of the board of Fremont Bank, which has received more than $1 million in fees from the taxpayer-funded district. Wallace declined to comment on the investigation.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission's decision to investigate Wallace, made public last week, is the latest in a series of probes it has initiated following a July report by The Bay Citizen that uncovered millions of dollars in questionable transactions involving companies and nonprofits with ties to health care district officials across the state.


Gerald Shefren and Arthur Faro, board members of the Sequoia Healthcare District in Redwood City, and Frank Burgess, a former board member of the San Gorgonio Memorial Healthcare District in Riverside County, also are under investigation for possibly violating state conflict-of-interest laws. 


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State's political watchdog to probe health district conflicts

The state’s political watchdog agency has launched investigations into whether officials in two publicly funded health care districts in the Bay Area and Southern California were involved in decisions that benefited them financially.

The investigations by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, made public this week, will focus on whether three current and former board members violated the state’s conflict-of-interest laws.

The probes follow an investigation last month by The Bay Citizen and California Watch, which uncovered millions of dollars in questionable transactions involving companies and nonprofits with ties to top district officials. California's 74 taxpayer-funded health care districts control multimillion-dollar budgets with little state oversight. Some operate nursing homes and hospitals. Others manage real estate and distribute community health grants.

Among those under investigation are Gerald Shefren and Arthur Faro, board members of the Sequoia Healthcare District in Redwood City, and Frank Burgess, a former board member of the San Gorgonio Memorial Healthcare District in Riverside County.  


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Former top state administrator fined for conflicts of interest

A state watchdog agency has fined a former top administrator at California's real estate management agency for approving contracts worth $3 million with a company that had hired his wife's consulting firm.

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission issued a $3,500 fine last week against Theodore Park, who was acting deputy director of the California Department of General Services’ Real Estate Division until December.

Investigators found Park had approved the contracts with Vanir Construction in 2010, while his wife's consulting firm worked for the company. At the time, Luisa Park was a partner in the school facilities consulting firm of Hancock, Gonos and Park. She earned $40,000 from Vanir between 2007 and 2011, according to documents from the commission.


Under the Fair Political Reform Act, public officials are prohibited from making a decision involving companies or nonprofits in which they have a financial stake, including transactions affecting a spouse’s income.

Theodore Park's violation was significant because his wife had a financial interest in the transactions, said Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which approved the disciplinary action against him on July 12.

“We take those extremely seriously," Ravel said. "This goes to the essence of an impropriety because public officials are supposed to be doing their job without any personal or financial interest.”


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Public disclosure is next frontier in campaign finance reform

After recent court rulings struck down significant campaign finance limits, the next frontier in the debate over money in politics appears to be public disclosure – whether there should be more or less of it.

That sticky question formed the main source of argument among election law experts at a symposium on campaign finance reform yesterday in Sacramento.

"The landscape has changed," said Elizabeth Garrett, a commissioner of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which co-hosted the symposium. "Now that the groups who did not like regulation in the first place have won on so much else, I think they’re going to turn some of their guns to disclosure."

Supporters of regulation still are reeling from the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited contributions from corporations and unions to attack or support politicians. That and a subsequent court ruling allowing unlimited contributions from individuals helped give rise to the super political action committees that already have spent tens of millions of dollars on attack ads and are sure to continue their outsized influence in this year's elections.

While the Supreme Court threw out restrictions on campaign contributions as free speech, the Citizens United ruling upheld disclosure requirements that help us know the identities of the millionaires and billionaires who give to super PACs.


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New chair of campaign finance watchdog draws strong reactions

Ann Ravel, Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to lead the state Fair Political Practices Commission, has been on the job less than a year but is moving quickly and provoking strong reactions.

Ravel’s supporters say she is boldly revamping ethics regulations for the better, making them simpler to understand and follow. Her detractors – which include an outspoken fellow commissioner and the previous chairman – say she is weakening oversight of the watchdog agency by siding with the politicians and lobbyists she is supposed to regulate.

Ravel, who took the gavel in February, said she has focused the agency's enforcement on major cases like money laundering and conflicts of interest instead of minor filing violations.

"I have done more to (investigate) much more egregious violations of the Political Reform Act than anyone before me," she said. "What they did before were lots and lots of small violations, and I think you found people who didn’t have respect for what the FPPC was doing."

Ravel previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and was the county counsel for Santa Clara County from 1998 to 2009.


"My interest is to make the FPPC a really central player in the government and political structure of this state," Ravel added. "I think most people saw it as a minor nuisance instead."


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State health officials under investigation for failing to disclose trips

Three Medi-Cal pharmacy officials are under investigation by the state for failing to disclose flights, hotel rooms and meals paid for by nonprofit groups that are primarily funded by big drug makers.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission launched its investigation last month in response to a California Watch story that detailed how the state officials had failed to disclose the trips, according to Roman Porter, the commission’s executive director.

Flickr photo by Olastuen

The three officials facing FPPC scrutiny had accepted about a dozen trips while they were in a position to make key decisions involving $8.5 billion in spending on prescription drugs for the state’s neediest residents during the last three years.

All three officials could face $5,000 fines for each trip they failed to report within the last four years.

Medi-Cal’s top pharmacy official, Pilar Williams, attended one conference in Wisconsin last September that her agency reported under a stringent, new FPPC standard that requires the disclosure of any gifts to state departments. But it was not reported on a form that requires agency leaders to list income, including gifts, outside of their civil service salary.

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