California Democrats trying to recover from loss of embezzled campaign money

September 14, 2011

Several California Democrats are trying to recover from the loss of embezzled campaign money, and they could be on the hook for federal fines.

The case centers around California bookkeeper Kinde Durkee, who prosecutors allege committed fraud while serving as a treasurer for political campaigns.

Prosecutors say that Durkee, who was arrested Sept. 2, took $677,000 out of the account of a state assemblyman and transferred money into accounts held by Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Susan A. Davis. Some of the money was used to make payroll for Durkee’s firm and to cover personal expenses, including a nursing home bill for her mother, according to prosecutors.

A lawyer for Durkee did not return a call requesting comment on the charges. FBI agents said in an affidavit that Durkee admitted misappropriating her clients’ money.

Durkee serves as treasurer for 87 federal campaign committees, including that of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), records show. The committees together held $6.6 million.

Durkee also worked for more than 100 state-level campaigns in California and many nonprofit groups. The organizations include the Latino Diabetes Association and the Poker Voters of America.

In all, Durkee had control of more than 400 bank accounts, according to the complaint filed Sept. 2 in federal court in Sacramento.

Unraveling the transfers between accounts will be complicated. The complaint alleges that Durkee was able to keep the subterfuge secret for years by shifting money among accounts.

“There’s potential that this whole sordid mess stretches back a long time,” said Bill Carrick, a consultant to Feinstein, who has used Durkee as a bookkeeper for five campaigns over two decades. “Really, no one has any idea.”

Carrick would not comment on whether Feinstein was affected by the scandal, he said, because the campaign account had been frozen and he was unable to examine any transfers.

The bulk of Feinstein’s federal campaign money, about $5 million, had been under Durkee’s control, federal records show. Feinstein, who is running for reelection next year, has a large base of supporters and has used her personal wealth to fund her campaigns in the past.

This could prove to be the biggest in a string of recent embezzlement cases, which have affected both parties as the cost of political campaigns has surged in the past decade. In 2010, the winners in the House each spent $1.4 million on average, more than triple the figure two decades ago, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Responding to the wave of fraud, the Federal Election Commission has said it will not pursue complaints against campaigns over disclosure documents falsified by employees — as long as campaigns already had basic safeguards in place. Those should include having two people sign checks for more than $1,000 and requiring that an outside person reconcile reports with bank statements.

Such controls probably would have caught the fraud alleged in Durkee’s case.

The National Republican Congressional Committee paid a $10,000 fine last year for false reporting after its controller, Christopher Ward, stole $844,000 in campaign money and covered his tracks by faking reports from outside auditors. Ward pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He will be forced to repay his remaining debt to the committee.

A former employee of Durkee’s said in an interview that he did not believe the allegations against Durkee, noting that she showed no sign of an extravagant lifestyle, typically arrived at the office by 6 a.m. and regularly worked 60 hours a week.

“She drove a ratty truck that was barely running,” said the employee, who is looking for work and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation. “That thing was in the shop all the time.”

The criminal complaint says that Durkee used some of the assemblyman’s campaign money to pay a credit card bill, including charges at Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop, Costco and Ariel’s Grotto at Disneyland, a restaurant based on the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.”

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