Babulal Bera and Campaign Finance

It’s a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act to make contributions in excess of a certain amount or to make contributions in the name of another person. The logic of this law, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Citizen’s United, finding corporations and unions have 1st Amendment rights and functionally eliminating limits on corporate spending, seems dubious. The current state of the law is individuals cannot contribute more than certain dollar amounts but corporations and unions can spend whatever they want, however they want. Seems a bit unfair, and I’d daresay Babulal “Bob” Bera probably would agree.

If Babulal Bera’s name sounds familiar that’s because his son is local congressman Dr. Ami Bera. On May 10, 2016 Bob Bera plead guilty to violating 52 USC §30116(a)(1)(A), Making Excessive Campaign Contributions and 52 USC §30122, Making Contributions In the Name of Another. According to the plea agreement, during the 2010 and 2012 campaign seasons Bob Bera sought contributions to his son’s campaign from friends, family members and acquaintances. Bob Bera then reimbursed these contributions with his own funds. The plea agreement states the government identified over 130 improper campaign contributions during the 2010 and 2012 election seasons. Bob Bera acknowledged that between May 11, 2009 and August 20, 2010 he reimbursed more than $220,000 in contributions. Additionally the plea agreement states between January 31, 2011 and December 5, 2011 he reimbursed individuals another $43,400. Bob Bera also admitted to using his wife’s name on some of the contributions. As part of the plea agreement the government has agreed not to prosecute his wife, Kanta Bera. Under the plea agreement the government agrees to recommend a sentence no greater than 30 months for the 83 year old retired chemical engineer. According to statements made by acting U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert, Congressman Bera and his campaign fully cooperated in the investigation and there was no evidence that suggested Congressman Bera or his staff knew anything about the reimbursements of campaign contributions.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is currently under both state and federal investigation for similar claimed campaign finance violations. The de Blasio investigation is focusing on whether or not the de Blasio campaign illegally circumvented limits on campaign contributions to individual candidates by directing money through Democratic Party county committees and a statewide party campaign committee. The New York State Board of Elections chief enforcement counsel wrote in a memo to board commissioners:

I have determined that reasonable cause exists to believe a violation warranting criminal has taken place… the violations discovered by this investigation can only be described as willful and flagrant. Walter Reed, a 30 year District Attorney in Louisiana was convicted earlier this month on 18 of 19 counts of conspiracy wire and mail fraud, money launder and false statements on tax returns.

The allegations all stemmed from his misuse of campaign funds, funds that were used on everything from fancy meals to flowers. Reed’s son was also convicted on three counts. Those familiar with the prosecution are saying it is a sure thing that Reed, formerly nicknamed St. Slammy for the number of lengthy prison sentences his office obtained, will be facing at least 5 years in a federal prison. The specific dollar amounts an individual can contribute is set forth in a relatively complex statute, 52 USC §30116.

Here’s the rub… Babulal Bera easily could have made the same donations to his son’s campaign legally. The same may well be true of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The truth is in the post Citizen’s United world there are any number of different ways it could have been done, perhaps easiest amongst them was to create an independent political expenditure committee, aka a Super Pac. In 2002 the McCain-Feingold Act, also known at the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed. The Act prevented corporations and unions from using certain funds to broadcast about political candidates. In 2004 Citizen’s United, a conservative non-profit under 501(c)(4), filed a complaint with the FEC [Federal Election Commission] complaining Michael Moore’s film Farenheit/9-11 was political advertising and could not be aired 30 or 60 days of an election. The FEC dismissed the complaints. Citizen’s United then sought to establish itself as bona fide commercial film makers, this decision was timed to coincide with their release of “Hillary: The Movie”, a highly critical so-called documentary. The documentary was also timed to coincide with the presidential race. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the court. The Court ruled that McCain-Feingold’s prohibition of all independent expenditures violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The court reasoned that spending money is essential to disseminating speech; therefore limiting a corporation’s ability to spend is unconstitutional because it limits the ability of the members of the corporation to associate effectively and speak on political issues.