A San Diego County Assembly member has returned more than $78,000 in campaign donations from the Fresno County Republican Party -- contributions that had sparked controversy and prompted a state investigation.
The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is trying to determine whether the party's Fresno County central committee and San Diego County Assembly Member Joel Anderson bypassed campaign-finance laws in a series of transactions this year.
The committee had donated the money to Anderson -- a Republican from the eastern San Diego County town of Alpine -- with at least four payments that started in May. Anderson, who is up for re-election next year, also is reportedly considering a state Senate run.
The committee's donations to Anderson's 2010 Assembly campaign came a short time after receiving similar contributions from Anderson's 2008 Assembly campaign, as well as from a prominent San Diego County family, two Indian tribes based in the county, and San Diego-based Sempra Energy.
None had donated any money to the Fresno County Republican Party committee over the previous decade, state records show.
In total, San Diego County interests sent $82,900 to the Fresno County Republican Party in May and June, and the Fresno County GOP sent Anderson $78,755 over roughly the same time period.
The donations raised eyebrows because party committees can give Anderson as much money as they like. Other donors -- like the San Diego interests -- may directly give him only $3,900 per election. Anderson also would face limits in transferring money from his own 2008 campaign chest if he chooses to run for the Senate.
Last month, the Fair Political Practices Commission -- the state's political watchdog agency -- opened an investigation into the campaign donations. Roman Porter, the agency's executive director, said this week that the investigation is still active.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and a former Fair Political Practices Commission general counsel, said the transactions appeared to be an effort to circumvent the limits. But Anderson's decision to return the money on Oct. 28 will "certainly ease the pressure" of the commission's investigation -- and could even end it.
By returning the contributions, Anderson not only gives up any benefit, he incurs a "pretty stiff penalty right there," Stern said. "It's a bigger penalty than the FPPC could impose."
Anderson and his staff did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking a comment.
Stuart Weil, who is a member of the Fresno County Republican Party's executive board, said he was disappointed that Anderson returned the money.
"When I heard he gave money back, I figured [the controversy] got to be too much," Weil said.
Weil said the transactions had nothing to do with political money-laundering. The San Diego County donors support the Fresno County committee, even though it has nothing to do with San Diego County, he said. And the committee supports Anderson, even though he has nothing to do with Fresno County.
"I think Joel's a great candidate," Weil said.
The questionable transactions started in May, when the Fresno County committee received $30,000 from members of a San Diego County family, according to campaign-finance statements. In the same time period, the committee gave $28,500 to Anderson.
On May 28, Anderson's 2008 campaign donated $32,400 to the Fresno County Republican Party.
At the end of May, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation donated $8,000 to the Fresno County GOP. On June 29, the Barona Band of Mission Indians gave $10,000. The following day, Sempra Energy donated $2,500.
In May, June and early July, the Fresno County GOP committee made four separate contributions totaling $78,755 to Anderson's 2010 campaign, according to Anderson's campaign statements. For reasons that were not apparent, the Fresno County committee listed the contributions as six separate donations.