After the fund's birth, the central committee suddenly found its account flush with money from entities known for currying political favor: big oil, insurance companies, Indian tribes and various political action committees. In 2011 and 2012, the local central committee received nearly $1.9 million, all but a fraction from the fund, and more than a sixfold increase from its income during the prior two years.
The Stanislaus central committee, which historically has helped local candidates, last year passed $320,000 to Bill Berryhill, who ran for a Senate seat against Cathleen Galgiani. The committee also sent money elsewhere, including $205,000 to Pedro Rios of Bakersfield, $110,000 to Tony Strickland of Moorpark, who later switched to a congressional race, and smaller sums to other Southern California politicians. All lost.
DeMartini said Stanislaus was chosen because the Berryhill-Galgiani contest was among a handful of competitive races where leaders thought Republicans might stand a chance with appropriate support.
"We can fund candidates to a higher level" by participating, DeMartini said. "The whole purpose is to help members get elected, and it's completely legal. We have our donors and the Democrats have their unions."
The Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee likewise received most of its campaign money last year from faraway donors, including labor unions, and sent money to distant races. Sums included $125,000 to Rios' opponent in Bakersfield, Rudy Salas; $130,000 to Torrance Democrat Al Muratsuchi; and four others. All won.
The Democratic central committee, however, received no single donation over the legal limit that year of $32,500 for such committees.
The California Republican Leadership Fund had no such burden, allowing big donors to cut a single check instead of several going to various central committees.
"It is a known tactic being used by both sides in certain regions," said Phillip Ung, spokesman for California Common Cause, which advocates for campaign reform. He compared it to ballot measure committees created by politicians, allowing them to raise money for sometimes questionable causes without the restrictions of individual campaigns.
Loopholes seem impossible to plug, Ung said, because that would be up to lawmakers who either created the loopholes or benefit from them, or both. Statewide initiatives, another option, are expensive, he noted.
"The system is broken," agreed Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book tracking legislative races. "The laws are stupid. Everyone knows it's wrong, everyone knows it's broken, and there has never been an attempt (by power brokers) to change it."
Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said, "We live in a system where the number of permissible constraints is increasingly decreasing."
DeMartini said the GOP's new fund helps candidates because "the state party is not that flush with money."
In any case, the FPPC reviewed the operation at the GOP's request before the fund was created and gave it a green light, according to documents obtained by The Bee, although leaders hoped it would be free from some reporting requirements that promote transparency.
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