Thursday, November 16, 2006
Butte County Judge Admonished Over Campaign Loan
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Butte Superior Court judge was admonished yesterday by the Commission on Judicial Performance for failing to report a campaign loan.
The commission took the action against Judge Stephen E. Benson after he admitted to the Fair Political Practices Commission that he did not disclose a $71,000 loan from his father during his successful 2000 campaign for an open seat.
A routine audit of the campaign disclosed that Benson deposited the loan into his personal bank account, then later transferred the money into the campaign account and listed himself as the source of the funds.
Benson subsequently admitted four violations of the Political Reform Act—misreporting himself as the source of the loan, failing to report that his father was the true source, and twice underreporting the amount of the loan.
In mitigation, the FPPC found that there was no intent to hide the fact that Benson’s father, Helmer G. Benson, had given to the campaign—a previous contribution had been correctly reported—and that the judge had not previously been the subject of an FPPC enforcement action.
Benson was fined $7,000, rather than the $11,000 maximum. The commission explained that three of the violations occurred before the 2000 election, when the maximum penalty was $2,000 per violation, and that the second underreporting violation occurred after the election, when the maximum penalty was $5,000.
After the CJP was notified and conducted its own investigation, Benson waived his right to formal proceedings and appeared before the commission in secret to contest the proposed discipline After hearing from Benson and his attorney, James Murphy, however, the commission voted 9-0 in favor of the admonishment.
The commission explained in yesterday’s decision:
“[Benson] was asked twice by a commission member why he had disclosed a smaller loan from his father during the primary election, yet failed to disclose the $71,000 loan from his father during the general election. Judge Benson stated he was not trying to hide the fact his father had loaned him money, but he could not explain his failure to disclose the large loan. According to the judge, ‘It was a simple detail that just didn’t even occur to me as – I can’t tell you why.’”
The commission said that Benson had violated his ethical obligations to “be faithful to the law,” and to “comply with the law and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”
Benson, a former Chico lawyer, won his seat in a runoff in 2000 with 54 percent of the vote. He was reelected this year without opposition.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company