State Sen. Tom Berryhill on Thursday rejected state investigators' assertions that he illegally laundered tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash in 2008 to help the Assembly campaign of his brother, Bill Berryhill.
Taking the stand on the third day of an administrative law hearing in Sacramento, the Twain Harte Republican testified he has long spread his political money among Republican county committees and candidates.
The fact that more than $40,000 he donated to GOP central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties ended up going to his brother's race was a decision he had no role in, he said.
Asked by his attorney Charles Bell whether he had ever earmarked any money for a specific candidate, Berryhill answered, "Absolutely not."
"It's against the law," the senator said, adding later that there was no "wink and a nod" arrangement with the county parties.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission contends that Tom Berryhill and Bill Berryhill orchestrated the money shifts in the closing days of the fall 2008 campaign. The political ethics watchdog agency contends that the brothers' goal was to bypass individual contribution limits of $3,600 per election. County committees could give $30,200 to candidates at the time, but coordination is prohibited.
In his testimony before Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew, Tom Berryhill described a darkening political landscape for Republicans as the November 2008 election approached.
Tom Berryhill was cruising to re-election in his safely Republican Modesto-centered Assembly district. But in an adjacent, more evenly matched district, Bill Berryhill, a Ceres farmer, was facing an increasingly tough race against Democrat John Eisenhunt of Turlock to keep the seat in Republican hands.
Assembly Democrats had started pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Eisenhunt's campaign. In addition, polling suggested that Barack Obama's presence on the ballot would increase Democratic turnout, spelling more trouble for down-ticket Republicans.
"Believe me, at that point in time, every red flag in the world went up," Tom Berryhill testified. "We needed to hold that seat."
Tom Berryhill said he continued to raise money to give to party committees. As the election neared, Berryhill said, Republicans' electoral battlefield was little more than holding a Ventura-centered Senate seat, picking up a Stockton-based Senate district, and electing Bill Berryhill.
"There is no guarantee that those moneys are going to go to any given candidate. I just had a hope and a prayer," Tom Berryhill testified of his contributions to the San Joaquin and Stanislaus committees. "There were only so many places they could spend it."
"Let me reiterate, he was the only game in town," he testified later. "We were going to take our chances and hope they did the right thing."
FPPC attorneys will begin cross-examining Tom Berryhill later Thursday afternoon. Former Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines, who oversaw Republicans' 2008 campaigns, also is scheduled to take the stand.
Bill Berryhill won the 2008 race and served in the Assembly through 2012. He narrowly lost a race for state Senate last year. He is scheduled to testify at the administrative hearing Thursday.
PHOTO: State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, center, talks with his attorneys during a break in his testimony at an administrative law hearing in Sacramento on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Jim Miller.