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Former state Senate leader fined for misusing campaign funds

Democrat Dean Florez agrees to pay $60,000 for violations that include spending funds from political accounts for furniture, concert tickets, vacations and gas.

November 04, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy
  • Then a state senator, Dean Florez, second from right, appears in September 2010 with Gov. Jerry Brown at a campaign stop at Laney College in Oakland.
Then a state senator, Dean Florez, second from right, appears in September… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — California's ethics agency has fined a former state Senate majority leader $60,000 for campaign violations that include spending $26,541 in political funds on personal expenses, buying furniture, concert tickets, ski trips to Utah, expensive dinners, fireworks, a satellite radio subscription and gas for his car.

Former Sen. Dean Florez, a Democrat who represented a San Joaquin Valley district until 2010, agreed to the fines, submitting a check from his personal account as payment.

He admitted to violations that also include failure to return $247,000 he raised for his lieutenant governor campaign in 2010 — which he abandoned just before the primary.

Florez, 50, was found by the state Fair Political Practices Commission to have made 168 personal purchases since 2010 from his lieutenant governor fund and a committee he established to run for state controller next year. It is unclear if he still plans to run.

"The failure by a candidate to refund contributions meant for a campaign that the candidate never participated in is a serious violation of the [Political Reform] Act, as it undermines the public's trust that their contributions will be used appropriately," said a report by the FPPC enforcement staff.

Florez, whose salary as Senate majority leader was more than $100,000 annually, did not return calls to his office at the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, where he is president.

The penalty — the largest in California to involve personal use of campaign funds, according to Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the state Fair Political Practices Commission — comes as the Legislature is rocked by an FBI investigation.

Federal authorities are probing allegations that state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) took $88,000 in bribes to attempt to sway legislation on film tax credits and workers' compensation laws.

Adding to the air of scandal at the Capitol, state Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) agreed to repay $21,000 in excess campaign contributions to a group called Voters for a New California.

The group was coordinating its activities with Alejo's campaign when by law it should have operated independently, according to documents released Monday.

Florez, an investment banker before his first election as a lawmaker in 1998, spent $6,700 in campaign money on gasoline not related to his campaign. He spent thousands more on purchases at Ikea, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Beck's Furniture and Bed, Bath and Beyond. They were all determined not to be legitimate campaign expenses, the FPPC report says.

The improper travel expenses included ski trips to Utah.

He also spent money on a year-long subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio, monthly parking passes, a golf shirt and Internet, cable TV and phone bills unrelated to his campaign, the report says.

Florez also put $5,700 from a campaign fund into a bank account not related to the campaign. The commission declined to provide further details about that transaction.

State officials commonly use campaign funds for travel, meals and other expenses, but California law requires them to show that the spending is for a "political, legislative or governmental purpose," such as a dinner with political supporters to raise funds for the campaign.

"Using campaign funds to personally benefit yourself is obviously against the law but also disrespectful to contributors who put money into your campaign," said Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause. Such behavior turns off "everyday voters who give to public officials they have confidence in."

Florez has admitted to 12 counts of violating campaign rules. The penalty he agreed to must be formalized by the commission, which is next scheduled to meet Nov. 14.

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