GOP committee fined by state

Republican central committees in three California counties, including Butte, violated state campaign laws by making illegal donations in the 2002 election, the state Fair Political Practices Commission has ruled.

According to a story in the May 29 San Francisco Chronicle, Butte, Kern and San Joaquin county committees received donations from 21st Century Insurance Group out of Woodland Hills and then passed that money on to GOP legislative candidates running in close races in other districts.

In Butte County the money, $40,000, did not go to help elect Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico. Instead it was diverted to the far-flung campaigns of candidates for Assembly: Guy Houston, R-San Ramon ($10,000); Alan Nakanishi, R-Lodi ($14,600); Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton ($14,600); and Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City ($700), all of whom were successful.

The FPPC said the contributions violated Prop. 34, which limits donations to political parties at $25,000. The contributions were made one day after the cut-off date for the last pre-election contribution report, meaning didn’t they show up until Jan. 31, three months after the November election.

According to FPPC documents, on Oct. 22, 2002, Jack R. Sargent, the treasurer for the Butte County Republican Central Committee, “impermissibly accepted contributions to support candidates for elective state office…” and the following day, “improperly used a contribution in excess of $25,000 to make contributions to candidates for elective state office, by using a $40,000 contribution from 21st Century Insurance Group to support four candidates for State Assembly” in violation of state law.

The FPPC has proposed a $10,000 fine for each committee and will decide June 10 if it will do so.

According to the Chronicle story, 21st Century, an auto insurance provider, was dinged by legislation authored by John Burton, D-San Francisco, that extended the deadline for victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake to file claims.

The company gave about $1 million that year to 15 county GOP committees who then spread the money to close races in the final days of the election so the donations wouldn’t register until well after it was over.

Josh Cook, chairman of the local county Republican committee at the time said, “We tried to obey the new rules; rules changed. We made a mistake. We pay the fine.”

The party’s legal representation put out this statement: “The Butte County Central Committee accepts the ruling by the FPPC in order to settle what could have been very costly litigation to vindicate its position. The committee will endeavor to bring greater understanding and accountability of complex campaign finance laws to our political efforts this election cycle.”

It then put the blame for the violation on the FPPC, saying it has failed to fully explain the law.

“The FPPC has had three-and-one-half years to clarify this issue under Prop. 34 but has failed to do so,” the statement read. “The committee will work with the FPPC to clarify these issues so other party committees do not face uncertainty or the threat of prosecution for technical errors.”

State party spokesperson Karen Hanretty said both the party and the central committees affected are “satisfied with the FPPC ruling.”

“We are working to bring greater understanding and accountability of what are very complex campaign laws to this election cycle,” she said.

She called the campaign law "ambiguous" but said the party does not dispute the FPPC ruling, "which we most fully accept and the central committees will pay the fines."