"They signed off on it and said OK when we set it up. I don't know why they're looking at it," DeMartini said, adding, "they think there was collusion, but there wasn't."
Gary Winuk, the FPPC's enforcement chief, would not discuss the probe other than to confirm it.
The Stanislaus committee complied with an investigator's recent request for records regarding the fund, DeMartini said.
Taken by surprise
But the inquiry polarized the central committee, several members said.
"Most people had no idea this account existed," said Grant Hurst, an alternate. Others agreed, many adding that they're new to the committee.
Central committees promote party goals. Members are elected and alternates are appointed.
"I am concerned about things being done right," said Pat Bicknell, also an alternate.
Rod Olsen, a former member, resigned just after the issue exploded this summer, because he and his wife, Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, moved out of the central committee district he represented. He said he was not aware of the fund and that the camp with questions wants to ensure everything is on the up and up.
Brett McBay, a Kristin Olsen appointee, said that tie is prompting him to "take a back seat" in the fund debate. "We're trying not to get involved in the messiness," he said.
Royena Cartwright and Mason characterized themselves as disinterested in committee finances, preferring to focus on public serv-ice.
Josh Whitfield, a Waterford City Council candidate, said, "I'm in the camp of doing what's best to help the party in our county. I don't believe anybody did anything maliciously wrong. If a mistake was made, we need to correct it quickly and get back to supporting Republican candidates and values."
Emma Alonzo said, "Everything is fine. Everything is taken care of. Nothing is going on."
Nancy Hinton referred questions to DeMartini and hung up.
John Freeman noted that the fund's income and outgo are available online for anyone who cares to look. "It's an entirely transparent process," he said.
Jim Vieira said the state inquiry appears to focus on an accounting error that raised suspicion because the central committee caught it and submitted an amended filing to correct it. "When you've got thousands of rules it's easy to do one thing wrong," he said.
Some campaign ethics experts said central committees always have been used as pawns of state parties. Operations such as the California Republican Leadership Fund, however, are rare, said Ung of Common Cause.
The fund heavily used the inaugural counties' central committees at first, funneling $4 million through San Luis Obispo, $1.7 million through Stanislaus and $1.4 million through Tulare in 2011 and 2012. Sacramento's central committee was drawn in last year, and other hefty contributions went in October to central committees in Alameda, Riverside and Yolo counties.
This year, the fund has focused on Tulare and San Luis Obispo, with money for Stanislaus and Sacramento slowing to a trickle, and none for the others.
The Stanislaus committee must also comply with federal campaign rules, which are enforced by the Federal Election Commission. During the 2011-12 election cycle, for instance, the committee reported receiving and spending about $339,000 on a variety of federal campaigns.
On Jan. 10, for instance, the committee reported receiving $10,000 from a state account controlled by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, originally established when he set sights on the office of lieutenant governor before opting for Congress.
That same day, the Stanislaus committee reported giving $10,000 to a French Camp-based group called Citizens for Constitutional Government, for voter registration services. The group has received $48,000 from the central committee in the past two years.
Federal election rules can be cumbersome and complex, and records show that the committee's reports have regularly prompted FEC follow-up questions. On Tuesday, an FEC analyst asked the committee about voter registration services and other issues identified on prior reports.
In the past two years, the FEC has sent 15 such "requests for additional information" to the Republican committee. The Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee has not received such requests during the same time frame, although the Democratic committee also has had to file fewer reports.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
(c)2013 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)
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