To get a better handle on the case, we caught up with Christopher Cadelago, a politics reporter with the Sacramento Bee, whose team has been covering this for months. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: So how did this all unfold?
CADELAGO: Ami Bera was approached a number of months ago and told by investigators that his father in the 2010 and 2012 cycles had recruited a large network of donors from across the country — many of them of Indian descent — who gave well over $200,000 to the 2010 and 2012 campaigns of Bera and then were reimbursed all but about $5,000 of that by Babulal Bera.
Investigators approached the elder Bera, they showed him proof — checks and things like that — and he admitted to it. There are some interesting side notes, though: None of the donors have been identified, which leaves a lot of questions still unanswered.
THE FIX: How is what Babulal Bera did illegal?
CADELAGO: At the time, an individual couldn't give more than $2,400 to a campaign. And so, by recruiting straw donors — hundreds of them — you are basically circumventing the campaign finance laws by donating well over the personal limit.
And Bera's campaign has said that the sad irony here is that had Bera's dad reached out to someone at the campaign, he would have been told he could just put the $250,000-some-odd-thousand into a super PAC that was committed to spending on behalf of Ami Bera. And he wouldn't have had to go on this illegal route.
THE FIX: Did this money impact any of Ami Bera's campaigns? (Editor's note: He ran for Congress and lost in 2010, then won in 2012 and 2014.)
CADELAGO: Prosecutors have noted that there's no way to quantify how much this may have helped Ami Bera in the early months to establish legitimacy for his candidacy. In the 2010 race, Ami Bera's first large fundraising haul had a chilling effect on his Democratic opponents.
And maybe a super PAC — where the money could have been from one large donor — wouldn't have had that effect.
THE FIX: So what's the argument about whether Ami Bera knew what his dad was doing?
CADELAGO: One argument is that it defies logic that someone's aging dad — who has since said that while he was a regular voter he was not a big political donor — would set out on his own and go find over 130 people to make all of these improper campaign contributions without the help of somebody who knows the process. So there's a lot of innuendo there and accusations, especially by Republicans.
But on the flip side, this has been an 18-month investigation, and prosecutors have repeatedly said they have not found evidence Ami Bera knew about this.
I don't think this is going to let up. Prosecutors have said that all of these straw donors could potentially be held liable for their role in allowing themselves to be reimbursed.
THE FIX: This must be tough for Ami Bera to watch his dad go to jail — especially when his dad said his ailing 82-year-old wife "won't be able to live without me."
CADELAGO: This would be objectively sad to anybody. Ami Bera was in this tough position between wanting to do everything he can to help his dad get through this, while telling folks that he didn't know about it and also not wanting to look like he was everywhere with his dad.
Bera's parents always talked about their son with this huge amount of pride given their journey here. (They immigrated from India in the 1950s.) And the judge noted that. He was like: 'You don't often see defendants standing before a judge facing prison time who have had this arc over their lives.' So I think it was a surprise to everybody when this surfaced.
THE FIX: Let's talk politics. Even though Ami Bera is not implicated in anything, how does this affect his reelection chances?
CADELAGO: I think it would be impossible to separate the political implications of this from the crime. For a member of Congress who wins by 1,500 votes in a swing district, everything has political implications.
You had the guy who ran against Bera in 2014 showing up in court, sitting in the front row, trying to address the court and judge as a victim. (The judge said he was not a victim since the fraud happened in 2010 and 2012.)
And while this is happening, his Republican opponent, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, is facing completely unrelated allegations of unwanted sexual advances. Also, Jones has endorsed [Donald] Trump. So does the Trump factor ultimately wipe away all these personal allegations?
Then there are the larger electoral challenges for Republicans in California. They haven't ousted a sitting Democratic member in 20-some years. I think a lot of this will come down to what voters believe about each candidate.