By Michael Gardner
, U-T SACRAMENTO BUREAU
, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Friday, December 11, 2009 at midnight
The state Fair Political Practices Commission has been investigating a series of questionable campaign finance transactions by Assemblyman Joel Anderson in response to an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The commission yesterday fined Anderson $20,000 for soliciting and accepting donations in excess of the legal limit and fined the Fresno County Republican Central Committee $29,000 for its role in enabling Anderson to exceed the limits and for failing to properly disclose certain donations to and from the La Mesa Republican.
SACRAMENTO — California’s political watchdog agency yesterday fined Assemblyman Joel Anderson $20,000 for breaking the law by soliciting and accepting campaign contributions in excess of the legal limit.
The Fair Political Practices Commission also fined the Fresno County Republican Central Committee $29,000 for its role in funneling money from Anderson and his supporters through the committee and back to Anderson and for failing to publicly disclose some of the donations.
In October, The San Diego Union-Tribune
reported on an unusual pattern of contributions totaling nearly $150,000 flowing from Anderson’s 2008 campaign committee and business interests in eastern San Diego County to Republican central committees in Fresno, Placer and Stanislaus counties, which in turn made donations in similar amounts to the La Mesa Republican’s 2010 campaign committee.
Within days of the story’s publication, the commission opened an investigation and subpoenaed Anderson’s campaign records.
“You know what?” Anderson said in an interview yesterday. “I made the mistakes, and I corrected them as quickly as possible. We didn’t spend the money. Once I realized there was a mistake, we went straight to the FPPC and tried to reconcile it.”
It’s more than a mistake, said Tony Quinn, a former commissioner. “It’s an admission of guilt when you pay a fine,” he said.
Anderson blamed complicated campaign finance laws for the situation.
“The laws are very confusing. The laws are very difficult to follow,” Anderson said. “Our goal was never to violate the law.”
Under pressure from the commission, Anderson earlier returned nearly $150,000 in disputed contributions.
“Clearly, the penalty is over $100,000,” Robert Stern, co-author of the Political Reform Act and a former commission general counsel, said of the fine and the returned donations. “It’s not the end of it for him because if he’s in a campaign next year, people are going to be pointing it out.”
Anderson backers gave a total of $48,000 to the Fresno County Republican Party in donations last spring: $10,000 each from three members of the Hamann family construction business in East County, $10,000 from the Barona Band of Mission Indians and $8,000 from the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
Within days of each $10,000 donation, the Fresno party sent checks of $9,500 to Anderson’s 2010 campaign. It sent $7,600 after the $8,000 contribution.
Contributors are allowed to give unlimited amounts to party committees, and party committees are allowed to give unlimited amounts to candidates. The legal line is crossed if there is any coordination of these activities.
In recommending the fines, the commission’s enforcement staff concluded that because Anderson or a representative solicited the donations, he broke the law by exceeding the $3,900 limit for individual donations to candidates for the Legislature.
The commission approved the recommended fines at a meeting yesterday on a 4-0 vote.
At the meeting, Commissioner Elizabeth Garrett questioned why Anderson and the Fresno County Republican committee were being fined but not the original donors.
“Why was no action taken in regard to the five entities — three dealing with the Hamann family and two Indian tribes — who made the contributions in excess of the contribution limits to candidates?” asked Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California. She asked whether there was any evidence that the donors intended to have the money transferred to Anderson’s campaign.
Gary Winuk, chief of the commission’s enforcement division, replied, “In my review of the evidence, there was insufficient evidence to sustain us going forward or we would have done so.”
The enforcement division also did not find evidence to warrant fining the Placer County and Stanislaus County Republican committees. But two Placer County party officials have resigned over the transactions, questioning why the county committee would give money to a San Diego County legislator whom they didn’t know.
Anderson has filed his intention to run for re-election in the 77th Assembly District in 2010, but said yesterday that he expects to run in the overlapping 36th Senate District instead. Had Anderson been allowed to keep the central committee money, he would have been able to raise more money for his Senate campaign and avoided a little-known provision of the Political Reform Act.
The provision provides that a candidate running for re-election for the same office can transfer all unspent money from the previous campaign with no strings attached. But a candidate running for a different office must attribute surplus funds to specific donors — meaning he cannot raise additional money from them if they have already given the legal maximum.
Calls to the Hamann family and the Barona and Sycuan bands seeking comment yesterday were not returned.
A.P. Sidhu, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Central Committee, did not respond to requests for comment, but in the past blamed the reporting violations on an inexperienced treasurer.
The two-month investigation was uncommonly quick by Fair Political Practices Commission standards.
“The fact that it was done at the speed it was done, there’s a possibility that it prevented additional violations,” said Roman Porter, executive director of the commission.
Commission investigators subpoenaed records but did not take sworn depositions of witnesses, which could have shed light on whether improper coordination occurred among those not fined.
“Unfortunately, we’re a state agency that doesn’t have unlimited resources,” Porter said. “We trust our professionals to make the appropriate decision of when to continue with a case and when they don’t have enough evidence to move forward.”
Staff writer Michele Clock contributed to this report.