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Published: Friday, 3/30/2012

Calif. Democratic campaign treasurer pleads guilty to looting $7M from candidates, committees

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A former California campaign treasurer pleaded guilty Friday to looting at least $7 million from the accounts of dozens of Democratic candidates and political organizations, in one of the nation's most egregious political embezzlement cases.

Kinde Durkee, who had operated Durkee & Associates of Burbank until her arrest last September, entered the plea to five counts of mail fraud in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. The plea deal carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in federal prison.

It ended a criminal case that left numerous state and federal candidates with little or no money in their campaign accounts, heading into an election year in which they face newly drawn districts and a new primary system.

Durkee, 59, now faces civil lawsuits from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who believes she may have lost as much as $5 million, and other victims.

Prosecutors say she controlled some 700 bank accounts and embezzled money from at least 50 victims, including members of California's Democratic congressional delegation, Democratic state lawmakers and various political organizations.

Court filings say the money went to pay mortgages on Durkee's homes, various business expenses that included health care benefits and 401(k) contributions for her employees, and her mother's care in a home for seniors.

She also used the political accounts to pay for an array of personal expenses, including bills from Disneyland, Costco, Amazon.com, Ulta cosmetics and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Neither Durkee nor her attorney had spoken publicly since her arrest.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission said the Durkee case was by far the largest political embezzlement case in state history. Officials with the Federal Election Commission said it was the largest they could recall.

In 2010, Christopher Ward, a former treasurer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $850,000 from the NRCC and other political committees in the largest such federal case in memory. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Prosecutors said Durkee also filed false information with the FEC and the California Secretary of State, which track campaign contributions and expenditures.

Her former clients have been in limbo because their campaign accounts were frozen as investigators tried to trace the money.

In California, the Fair Political Practices Commission has told candidates for state office that they are allowed to open new bank accounts and report any projected losses as "expenditures" until the case is sorted out. But the agency has put off a decision about whether affected candidates would be allowed to request additional contributions from donors who already gave the maximum amounts allowed by law.

The state commission is awaiting a decision on that matter regarding federal candidates from the FEC in a case filed by Feinstein. A hearing in the federal case is scheduled for April 12.



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