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Former OC assemblymember hit with $100K fine from state political watchdog

Former Orange County Assemblymember Bill Brough has been fined $100,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for misusing campaign funds and then failing to make payments toward a lesser penalty imposed earlier this year.

Brough, a Republican from Dana Point, agreed to pay a $47,000 penalty to settle the matter in April, made a single payment of $7,500 and then stopped responding to efforts by the FPPC and his own attorney to collect the rest, according to filings in the FPPC’s case.

Their investigation found that Brough, from February 2017 to March 2020, misused $17,303 in campaign funds for personal purposes and did not properly keep receipts for another $68,586 in spending.

Brough, a former Dana Point councilmember who served in the Assembly from 2016 until 2020, could not be reached for comment. In 2020, he denied any wrongdoing through his attorney and called the probe “retaliation” for his support of politically unfavorable legislation.

He later admitted to the FPPC’s charges and waived his right to a hearing as part of a stipulated agreement in April, according to a signed copy.

Because Brough defaulted on that agreement, the FPPC at its Nov. 16 meeting imposed the maximum amount of $5,000 for each of the 20 counts levied against him for misuse of the campaign funds and improper recordkeeping.

The FPPC originally launched its investigation in 2019 in response to a complaint from political blogger and conservative activist Aaron Park.

Improper expenses detailed

The improper campaign spending included $7,900 spent on a cellphone plan for his wife and children, $2,000 on clothes and nearly $7,000 on personal and family trips to Colorado, the Netherlands and Boston.

After his exit in 2020, Brough kept nearly $4,500 worth of items purchased for his Assembly office, including a custom cigar humidor, a custom bourbon barrel bar cabinet, a portable ice maker, a compact refrigerator and glass office shelving. He originally told investigators those items were in a storage unit while he decided whether he would run for another office, but it turned out he had taken them home.

Those were just the expenses the FPPC could track. Investigators couldn’t find the receipts for $53,000 in spending on meals, ranging from $100 to $3,738. Records also were missing for $13,900 spent on international trips to Ireland and the Netherlands.

Warnings from campaign treasurer

The FPPC did not fine Brough’s campaign treasurer, JenEve Slater, in the case as investigators found that Slater had “made efforts to educate Brough regarding applicable laws, including campaign reporting requirements, recordkeeping requirements and restrictions against personal use of campaign funds.”

At multiple points, Slater expressed concern to Brough about his recordkeeping.

“You must write the names on your receipts of who ate and you need to keep the detailed receipt,” Slater told Brough in April 2018. “Also — what’s the deal with tearing off the details of these ‘office supplies’ receipts?!?”

A month later, the lack of documentation came up again.

“I need all of your receipts ASAP — you’ve gone mad with the (credit) card use and I have one silly receipt for every ten expenses,” Slater said.

Slater refused to sign campaign filings starting in January 2020, as only 15% of the 488 expenditures at the time had the proper documentation.

Hid inappropriate spending

The FPPC alleges Brough intentionally hid the inappropriate spending. He concealed the cellphone bills for his family members as “office expenses.” He slipped in luxurious trips for his family by sandwiching improper stops and hotel stays in between permitted trips. In July 2017, he took his family to Boston to see a Red Sox game and maintained it was just a stop on his way to an international caucus.

“At first, when questioned by the Enforcement Division, Brough maintained that the family trip was a legitimate committee expense because it was on the way to the legislative Irish Caucus trip, and he was a guest of Anheuser-Busch, a campaign donor, who had given him tickets to the ballgame,” the FPPC’s investigators wrote in a filing supporting the $100,000 fine. “However, investigation revealed that Brough is the one who requested the tickets for himself and his family. No Anheuser-Busch officials were in attendance.”

During a trip to Washington, D.C., in October 2017, Brough and his family stopped off in Colorado Springs. When it came time to report his spending, Brough left out the Colorado hotel stays and listed his flight as taking him directly from California to D.C.

The next year, Brough reached out to the head of the Internet Marketing Association to arrange an appearance at a conference in the Netherlands. Emails between Brough and IMA Chairman Sinan Kanatsiz indicate Brough refused to pay the $3,500 fee charged to others and whittled the cost down to $1,000 with the assistance of an Orange County-based distillery owner that was co-sponsoring the event.

“Sinan, I cannot pay to go on the trip,” Brough wrote. “We have a big trip to Croatia this summer that cost us $15,000. I don’t need to do all the other stuff you planned.”

He reported the $1,000 in his campaign filings as an “information technology cost.”

Shunned publicity on trip

In the emails, Brough stressed that he didn’t want his attendance publicized.

“As I said, I am only interested in touring the facility Friday and now the tours Saturday. We do not need to sit in the meetings and hear speakers,” Brough wrote. “And, I am happy to participate in photos but do not mention my name or tag me on any social media while we are there.”

Brough gave a short speech and presented the local distillery owner with a legislative resolution. That portion of the trip allegedly took just two hours. Brough and his wife, who was celebrating her birthday, spent four days in the Netherlands eating gourmet meals, attending liquor tastings and touring the area.

In total, Brough spent more than $7,600 in campaign funds on the trip. He would later tell the FPPC that the event “afforded an opportunity for him to meet and learn about some of his constituents, including the CEO of Ketel One Vodka, a company with a North American headquarters in Brough’s former assembly district,” according to investigators.

The FPPC had previously warned Brough in February 2019 about a similar impermissible trip to the Paris paid for by his 2016 campaign.

“Thus, even though Brough had just been cautioned and put on notice about this impermissible spending, he proceeded to commit the same violations again, only months later — demonstrating an ongoing pattern of intentional, personal use of campaign funds from July 2016 through March 2020,” the FPPC wrote in its case against Brough.

The prior warning, plus Brough’s multiple years of experience as a candidate, were weighed when imposing the hefty fine against him.

Brough left the Assembly in 2020 after losing his reelection bid. At the time, four women — including Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett — had alleged that he’d made aggressive, unwanted sexual advances toward them. Prominent Republicans withdrew their endorsements of the assemblymember in response to the allegations and the FPPC’s ongoing probe of his campaign finances.

Source: Orange County Register

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