SACRAMENTO (CN) — Despite calls for a stiffer penalty, California’s political watchdog on Thursday approved a $45,000 fine against a Bay Area district attorney who turned campaign donations into his “personal slush fund.”
After lengthy discussion, the California Fair Political Practices Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the proposed $45,000 fine against Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson. The commission’s chief enforcement officer Galena West said the fine was appropriate, noting that Peterson has agreed to pay back $66,000 to his campaign.
Dissenting Commissioners Gavin Wasserman and Maria Audero moved for a higher penalty, citing the state’s inconsistent path in fining rogue elected officials and politicians. Wasserman asked the commission to consider trashing the proposed fine in lieu of a harsher penalty, but his motion was rejected 2-3.
“I tend not to look at what they have to pay back, because that’s what they have to pay back; that’s what they’ve taken wrongfully,” Wasserman said.
Audero lamented the FPPC’s method of taking enforcement issues on a case-by-case basis and asked the commission to consider a more well-rounded approach at a future hearing.
“If we don’t have a policy as a starting point, I think these case-by-case considerations become … more of an art than science,” Audero said.
West defended the penalty by comparing it to other misappropriation cases and reiterated that Peterson has complied with the order and paid back the commission $111,000.
She and commission Chair Jodi Remke said going through the settlement process is vital to decreasing the FPPC’s backlog and preventing enforcement cases from dragging on.
The commission announced in December that Peterson had agreed to settle claims that he paid for hotels, movies and gas with campaign funds.
The FPPC found that Peterson used campaign funds for personal expenses more than 600 times in four years, and stopped only when he realized he was being audited, in October 2015. Peterson has been a member of the California State Bar since 1983 and was elected by Contra Costa voters in 2010.
He served as the treasurer of his own campaign, and has said that he considered the campaign donations personal loans that he meant to pay back.
“I am humbled and embarrassed by my mistakes, for which I take full responsibility, and I apologize for my regrettable errors,” Peterson said in a December statement.
Peterson’s critics held a mock trial and protest last Wednesday and have called for his resignation. One of his former Contra Costa County fraud investigators submitted a letter to the commission, calling the $45,000 penalty a “slap on the wrist.”
“I have spoken with several prosecutors who are embarrassed by Mr. Peterson and hope that he will resign,” William Murphy wrote in the letter.
The commission approved 26 penalties totaling $73,177. The fines are paid into the state’s General Fund.