Should Ami Bera’s dad go to prison?

Jeff vonKaenel

By sentencing 83-year-old Babulal Bera to a year in prison in addition to a $100,000 fine, United States District Judge Troy Nunley wanted to send a clear message. And he did.

Nunley’s ruling once again demonstrates that America has two judicial systems: One for the rich, powerful and sophisticated, and another for everyone else. While Babulal is not poor, he didn’t know how to work the system. Wanting to contribute more than the legal limit of $5,000 to his son Ami Bera’s campaign, he gave money to others, who then contributed to his son’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Prosecutors discovered more than $260,000 in illegally funneled donations.

And Babulal admits that he did it. What’s strange is not that he tried to get around election laws, but rather, why he chose an illegal method when there are so many legal ways to accomplish the same thing.

With the rise of super PACs, there are legal ways to give unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate—and politically sophisticated donors know this. Big donors who understand the system often give millions of dollars to super PACs, which then produce mailers, conduct polls, buy TV ads and directly work to influence contested races. It’s not uncommon for wealthy family members to cut large checks to super PACs to support a relative’s campaign. And, if they give through a corporation, it may not even be traced back to them in the disclosure reports. Since the rise of Citizens United, this has become a regular occurrence—and political operatives know to direct wealthy donors to these channels.

What separates Babulal from the thousands of others who are getting around election financing rules is that he did not use the correct procedure. For this, he could spend a year in prison.

In justifying this harsh sentence, Nunley told Babulal that “the harm you have done to the election process here is something that can’t be quantified.”

Oh, please. If only we had an election process where Babulal’s $260,000 of donations could harm it.

In Ami’s congressional races in 2010, 2012 and 2014, nearly $40 million was spent by all parties. The election financing process is obscene. And, the expectation that political donations will purchase political favors is also obscene. Ironically, Babulal’s contributions, because they were not tied to political favors, may be some of the cleanest money in the campaigns.

I wonder how Nunley feels about the Koch brothers funneling $900 million into the 2016 elections. Don’t donations of this size do harm to our election process?

And, as if Nunley’s ruling was not bad enough, former congressional candidate Doug Ose, who lost to Ami in 2014, complained that the sentence was too lenient. This is the same Ose who was born into wealth and who personally lent his own campaign over $3 million. But at least he knew how to play the game.

The scales of justice are not balanced. Bank officials who immorally and illegally destroyed our economy in 2008 were let off with fines. Eighty-three-year-old Babulal, who didn’t understand the rules of the campaign financing game, is going off to prison.

Given his age, Babulal’s one-year jail sentence may become his death sentence. Is this justice?

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.