Reimburses $130,529 in misused campaign funds; some county residents who spoke wanted stiffer penalties.
By Daniel Borsuk
Potential criminal and abuse of public pension charges might be levied against former Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder and Elections Chief Joseph Canciamilla following a vote of the California Fair Political Practices Commission at its meeting on Thursday.
commissioners voted 4-0 to assess one of its largest penalties of the year of $150,000 against the Pittsburg native at its meeting in Sacramento, for misuse of campaign funds. The fine has been paid and all fines go to the state’s General Fund.
Without going into detail, commissioners also referred the case to Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton and the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association for further review and potential action against the former Contra Costa County Clerk-Record-Registrar of Voters, who was once considered to be a rising political star in the Democratic Party when he launched his political career at the age of 17 years old, winning a seat to the Pittsburg Unified School District’s Board of Education in 1973.
“We have an active investigation,” said Scott Alonso, spokesman for DA Becton. “So, we won’t be able to weigh in here.”
Gail Strohl, Executive Director of the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association, said her organization has yet to receive instructions from the FPPC, but she said the association does have power to forfeit public pensions of elected officials “for job-related convictions.”
“One of the basic trusts people place in the system is when you give money to a candidate, it’s used as intended, which is a campaign, not to line their pockets or take vacations,” FPPC Chair Richard C. Miadich said in a press release.” Not only is this egregious in and of itself, but even more troubling is the damage to the public trust. That’s why this required a strong penalty, and the public deserves strong actions to restore and maintain integrity in the system.”
The FPPC uncovered Canciamilla’ s misuse of campaign funds from an audit conducted by the Franchise Tax Board’s Political Reform Audit Program. The audit found numerous issues, including personal use and reporting errors. The FPPC Enforcement Division conducted an investigation that determined Canciamilla misled the Franchise Tax Board for the purpose of concealing other violations, including additional personal use of campaign funds, false reporting, and commingling of campaign funds with personal funds.
“I’m proud of our Enforcement unit for helping uncover this scheme,” said FPPC Chief of Enforcement Galena West. “The work of our investigative unit took the FTB’s findings and uncovered even more instances and details. I thank the Commission for approving thi substantial penalty to show how serious we are about making sure public officials serve the public, and not themselves.”
Canciamilla was found to have used campaign funds to remodel a vacation home in Hawaii and for a vacation to Asia. Canciamilla fully reimbursed the committee for the $130,529 improperly used and the approved settlement required Canciamilla to pay half the penalty with his own personal funds. The full exhibit of facts can be found here – FPPC Joseph Canciamilla – Stipulation Decision & Order
Even still, a contingent of Contra Costa County residents spoke before FPPC commissioners requesting that the proposed fine for Canciamilla did not go far enough to punish the former longtime politician. They wanted stiffer fines but, were informed the penalties the FPPC levied were legislatively the highest the commissioners could impose.
“It’s pretty outrageous our local elections official violated these rules in a very willful way. Making this case painful for Mr. Canciamilla is the point,” said Kenji Yamada, who stated he was a candidate for public office, last year. “We need a deterrent. A stronger one than we have seen in previous cases. What we, those of us from Contra Costa, would like you to do is reject staff’s stipulation agreement which charges Canciamilla with far fewer counts than possible. Instead direct staff to seek the maximum number of counts for the maximum penalty…for the purpose of deterrence and to make this case as painful as possible.”
“Your work serves as a deterrent,” said one of the speakers, Mike Pierce, who said many of the elected candidates for countywide posts run uncontested.
Claire Mitchell also of Contra Costa County reminded commissioners of the case where former county District Attorney Mark Peterson was forced to step down from his post and convicted in 2017 for misusing $66,000 of campaign funds for personal use.
“This $150,000 fine is a drop in the bucket,” protested Mitchell.
FPPC Commissioner Frank Cardenas said the Canciamilla case shook his resolve about “transparency and the disclosure process of elected officials who have had our interests and had a good heart.”
“Mr. Canciamilla has taken full responsibility for this situation, is humbled, and embarrassed and hopes the FPPC fines won’t severely overshadow his 46 years of public service to the residents of Contra Costa County for various campaign violations,” said Andy Rockas, a Sacramento attorney representing Canciamilla, who was not in attendance.
“Mr. Canciamilla has cooperated with the FPPC, paid a hefty fine and has paid back all disputed amounts. None of the violations involved the use of taxpayer funds and were limited to campaign funds contributed by private sources” the Canciamilla press statement said.
“Canciamilla resigned his clerk-recorder position on October 31 so as to not bring undue hardship to the office while this matter was being resolved,” said Rockas.
To view the hearing, click here for the YouTube video beginning at the 39:00 mark for the agenda item regarding Canciamilla.