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By CALIFORNIAN STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
SACRAMENTO — Former California Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez faces record fines for campaign violations that include using some $26,500 in political funds for his personal benefit to buy furniture, concert tickets, fireworks, satellite radio, travel, expensive dinners and gas.
Florez, a Shafter Democrat, has agreed to pay $60,000 in fines, according to documents released Monday by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
He told The Californian that the mistakes were made because he didn’t understand the rules.
The ethics agency found that Florez made 168 personal purchases from campaign committees he set up for an abandoned 2010 run for lieutenant governor and a 2014 candidacy for state controller.
The penalty is “the largest fine in California history” involving personal use of campaign funds, according to Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the FPPC.
In all, Florez admitted to 12 counts of violating campaign rules, including failure to return $247,000 he had raised for his lieutenant governor campaign after he abandoned it three months before the June 2010 primary.
“The failure by a candidate to refund contributions meant for a campaign that the candidate never participated in is a serious violation of the act, as it undermines the public’s trust that their contributions will be used appropriately,” said a report by the FPPC staff.
The commission is scheduled to meet Nov. 14 to consider the penalty agreed to between Florez and the FPPC enforcement staff.
Florez, an investment banker before his election, spent $6,700 in campaign funds on gasoline for personal driving as well as on purchases at Ikea, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Beck’s Furniture and Bed Bath & Beyond determined not to be legitimate campaign expenses, the FPPC report said.
The report does not identify which travel was deemed personal, but during the period investigated, Florez tapped his campaigns for trips to Chicago, New York, Houston, Santa Monica, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.
Florez, who also represented Kern County in the state Assembly, is now president and CEO of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, an educational reform group dedicated to promoting technology use in higher education.
From 2007 through 2010 — while Florez was still in the state Senate — he raised about $1.5 million for the lieutenant governor’s race he abandoned well before the 2010 primary.
The FPPC’s investigation into personal use grew out of an audit by the Franchise Tax Board. In examining committees controlled by Florez, the FPPC later found that after pulling out of the race, Florez refunded about $72,500 to all who requested repayment. He then transferred $437,000 — including the $247,000 in general election contributions — to his Dean Florez for State Controller 2014 account. That account had $9,529 as of the June 30 disclosure report.
Florez told the FPPC his bookkeeper sought the commission’s advice before transferring the money, but now understands that his lieutenant governor committee was required to refund all of the remaining general election contributions after he withdrew from the primary, according to FPPC settlement documents.
Florez, in an email to The Californian Monday, acknowledged his mistakes and said they came because he misunderstood the rules governing the use of campaign funds.
“After a long career in politics, I recognize now that the bulk of the questioned expenditures typically stemmed from my misinterpretation of past practices concerning the allowable use of campaign funds for the payment of political expenses,” he wrote.
Florez called the FPPC action a “model audit” and wrote that he hopes his example will help other elected officials avoid making the same errors in the future.
“When the FPPC contacted me about these expenditures, I cooperated fully and immediately, acknowledged found campaign errors, took full responsibility for such errors and agreed to enter a stipulated settlement to pay the fine needed to resolve the matter,” Florez wrote.
Bakersfield Republican political consultant Stan Harper said even the average person will likely take notice of a $60,000 fine.
Small $500 and $1,000 fines that politicians get for failing to file campaign finance documents properly, Harper said, are of interest largely to political observers.
But $60,000 is more than a lot of people in Kern County make in a year, he said.
Harper said politicians on both side of the political spectrum cross the line but this violation, and the fine that went with it is historic in size.
And he thinks the rules are more clear than Florez indicated.
One can spend money to buy gas when driving from campaign event to campaign event, Harper said, or as member of the Legislature.
But campaign money can’t be used for personal spending.
“There is no excuse for this kind of thing,” Harper said. “He had to know what he was doing was illegal.”
California lawmakers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in campaign contributions on entertainment, fine dining and travel abroad. While state law bars such spending for personal use, lawmakers must only state that the spending was “reasonably” related to political, legislative or government purposes.
Rank-and-file legislators earn $90,526 annually — increasing to $95,291 Dec. 1. Most also accept roughly $30,000 in annual tax-free per diem payments.
Among the violations included in the settlement, Florez deposited $5,750 from his lieutenant governor committee into an unrelated bank account. The money was never used for campaign-related expenses.
The settlement lists him spending:
• $6,780 for gasoline purchases.
• $5,200 for monthly parking passes.
• $2,608 for personal travel, including airfare, a rental car and dining.
• $1,459 for three personal purchases at Ikea and Beck’s Furniture.
• $1,415 for purchases at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Best Buy and a bookstore.
• $1,396 for concert tickets, a golf shirt, fireworks and an annual subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio.
• $1,247 for three personal purchases at Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
• $684 for monthly Internet, phone and cable bills.
Florez represented the 30th Assembly District from 1998 to 2002 and the 16th Senate District from 2002 to 2010. He was named Senate majority leader in late 2008.
— Californian staff writer James Burger contributed to this report.