The Influence Industry
Potato titan convicted for California contributions is also a big donor in federal races
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 7:05 AM
Last week, Larry Minor, whose Agri-Empire business is one of the nation's largest potato growers, was indicted in a California court on charges of funneling $66,000 in campaign contributions through his family and employees to two candidates for the state legislature, evading the state's contribution limit of $3,900.
Minor, 70, is known in his small community outside Los Angeles as something of a local celebrity for throwing his wealth around a bit. When his daughter, Aimee, played softball in high school, Minor built two first-rate fields in his front yard for a new club program. He is a champion drag racer and a member of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. He also maintained a zoo outside his company office in downtown Hemet, Calif., that included a herd of zebras.
Within 24 hours of his indictment, he pleaded guilty to violating state contribution limits. A grand jury had brought 14 counts against Minor, but as part of a plea deal he faced just two misdemeanor charges. He will avoid jail time after paying a $60,000 fine and spending three years on probation.
While his indictment dealt with contributions to state politicians, Minor and his family members have also been generous donors to federal candidates and parties, contributing more than $150,000 in the past three election cycles.
One candidate in particular benefited from this largess: Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R), the local congresswoman. Federal campaign records show that Mack received about $32,000 from Minor and other members of his family in the past two election cycles.
Minor referred questions to his attorneys in Washington, who did not return a call seeking comment.
Aimee Minor Balcanus, 26, the softball-playing daughter of Larry Minor, gave $2,500 to Mack on June 3, 2008, according to federal records. The grand jury indictment lists her as one of the conduits that her father used to make contributions to Jeff Stone's campaign for state Senate in 2009.
In her grand jury testimony, Balcanus, who works part time for her father's company, described how she often went to fundraisers at her father's request, including one for Mack, and donated money when he asked, according to a transcript released by the court.
"Well, he typically asked, 'Can you afford to do this amount?' " she said. "Usually I can."
She also added that the Stone contribution was the only instance when she recalled her father saying that he would directly reimburse her for the money she donated. When asked about indirect reimbursement, she said: "That's a funny question, because he gives me money throughout the year. He's very generous to me."
Asking other people to give money is common in political fundraising. And the Federal Election Commission has previously written that a person can make political contributions with funds from someone else if they are part of a pattern of gifts between the two people.
"The question would be whether the gifts she received from her father were timed with her political contributions," said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election lawyer with the Holtzman Vogel law firm.
Cameron Minor, who is Larry Minor's nephew, gave $2,500 to Mack in May 2008. Before that contribution, he had not donated to a federal candidate since 1992, when his wife contributed to a Senate candidate, according to federal records. Preston Minor, another nephew, also gave $2,500 to Mack. It was his first contribution ever in Federal Election Commission records that date back to 1979.
Mack's chief of staff, Frank Cullen, said, "If any evidence of wrongdoing is discovered in relation to federal contributions, Mary Bono Mack will return the funds or donate an equal amount to charity."
Cameron Minor declined to comment, and Preston Minor did not return a call seeking comment.
Most of the contributions from the Minors to Mack came in May and June 2008, at the same time that Mack was pushing a bill through Congress that settled the water rights of the nearby Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians.
The legislation, which passed the House on a voice vote, used for uncontroversial legislation, settled the tribe's claims to water in the Southern California region, which is dependent on irrigation. The local water boards supported the deal, including the Lake Hemet Water District, where Larry Minor serves on the board.
Besides ending legal liability for the water authorities, the settlement included incentives for them from the federal government, including $10 million and imported water over the next three decades.
Larry Minor's plea deal allows him to continue to serve on the water board and another local elected office he holds on the parks board.