MARTINEZ (CBS SF) – Longtime Contra Costa County politician Joe Canciamilla is facing possible criminal charges after agreeing to pay $150,000 in state fines for misusing campaign funds.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission voted unanimously Thursday to accept a settlement deal with Canciamilla after he admitted to spending more than $130,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses like vacations and home repairs.
In the agreement, Canciamilla, a former county clerk/recorder, state assemblyman and Contra Costa County Superior Court judge candidate, admitted to using the funds for personal purposes in 2011, 2014 and 2015.
Also, from 2011 to 2019, Canciamilla concealed the violations on campaign finance forms by overstating his campaign’s available cash on hand and by not reporting campaign committee activities.
Additionally, Canciamilla “commingled campaign funds with personal funds” while he was running to be elected judge, according to the FPPC, and gave falsified bank records to state Franchise Tax Board auditors during their investigation.
As part of the settlement deal, he admitted to 30 violations of the California Political Reform Act.
Commissioner Alison Hayward called Canciamilla’s violations “particularly repugnant.”
“They show that a person who is raising money in trust for a political purpose is then converting that money to personal income,” Hayward said.
Canciamilla spent some of the money to remodel a Hawaiian vacation home and some of it — $36,119 — for vacation to Asia, according to the FPPC.
“This is a spectacular fall from grace by this particular individual,” Commissioner Frank Cardenas said. “It’s breathtaking arrogance.”
Canciamilla was first elected to office in 1973 at age 17 (he was sworn in at 18) as a member of the Pittsburg Unified School District board.
He went on to win seats on the Pittsburg City Council, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly. In 2013, he was appointed county clerk/recorder.
He won re-election to that office in 2014 and 2018. His term was set to expire in 2022, but he abruptly resigned on Oct. 31 after the FPPC audit investigation.
He resigned “so as not to bring undue hardship to the office while this matter was being resolved,” according to a statement from his lawyer, Andy Rockas.
On Nov. 8, the FPPC referred the case to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.
“We’re aware of what’s going on, we’ve been in contact with the commission,” said district attorney’s office spokesman Scott Alonso. “Any possible misconduct that has a criminal element to it, we’re investigating.”
Canciamilla appears most vulnerable to perjury charges for filing false campaign finance reports.
“Mr. Canciamilla has taken full responsibility for this situation, is humbled and embarrassed and hopes the FPPC fines won’t overshadow his 46 years of public service to the residents of Contra Costa County,” Rockas said.
While Canciamilla has paid back the money that he took from his campaign coffers and forked over half of the FPPC fine amount from his personal account, he was able pay the other half using money donated to his campaign committee, as allowed by state law.
Several Contra Costa County residents appeared at the FPPC meeting in Sacramento Thursday to urge that commissioners reject the agreement in order to add additional charges and fines to Canciamilla’s case.
“It looks like I’m supposed to pay his pension … after he’s done this to me and the other voters,” said a woman who didn’t give her name.
“It’s getting harder and harder to have faith in the political system because of so much fraud and the inability to be able to decide if we can trust our candidates,” she said.
The commissioners appeared sympathetic to that argument and, while they voted to accept the deal, they also directed staff to refer Canciamilla’s case to the Contra Costa County Public Employees’ Retirement Board for possible action.
They also voted to suggest new legislation that would increase penalties for using campaign funds for personal use.
“The people are asking for justice and we have got to find our way to that daylight because there’s too much distrust in the system and I can’t be a part of a process that adds to that in any way,” Cardenas said.
This is the second high-profile political spending scandal to emerge from Contra Costa County in recent years.
In 2017, then-District Attorney Mark Peterson resigned and pleaded no contest to a perjury charge after the FPPC fined him $45,000 for spending $66,372 in campaign funds on personal expenses.
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