FREMONT -- A state agency has fined a nonprofit group $25,000 after discovering it had laundered campaign contributions to a Fremont mayoral candidate six years ago.
The Fair Political Practices Commission announced Monday that leaders of the Wisdom Culture and Education Organization, which offers courses in Chinese language and customs, made five illegal donations to ex-Councilman Steve Cho's unsuccessful 2008 mayoral bid.
The Fremont organization's leaders have agreed to pay the maximum fine for violating campaign law by making candidate contributions in the name of another person, according to the state agency decision.
"Making a contribution in another person's name is one of the most serious types of violations ... because it denies the public information about where a candidate receives his or her financial support," the agency stated in its ruling.
The Wisdom Culture and Education Organization made donations to the Cho campaign through its employees while concealing itself as the true source of the contributions.
The group made donations totaling $2,500 from Feb. 22 to March 8, 2008. Each of its five checks were for $500, the maximum an individual could donate to a Fremont candidate, according to state agency documents.
The agency's probe found that two $500 checks made out to Steve Cho for Mayor were written in the name of the nonprofit group's CEO, Vincent Tsai, and his wife Mei-Chih Tsai, the organization's secretary. Three other $500 checks were made in the name of three employees: teacher Pi Ling Tsai, administrator Becky Tsai and finance officer Yu-Fen Hsu.
But the Wisdom Culture and Education Organization was the true source of those contributions, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Pi Ling Tsai declined to comment when reached by phone Monday, saying she was not aware of the case. Vincent and Mei-Chih Tsai could not be reached because they are traveling overseas. The couple will return to Fremont next week, Pi Ling Tsai said.
The nonprofit group has cooperated with the three-year probe by voluntarily handing over the reimbursement checks, saying they did not understand at the time that their conduct was illegal, according to state documents.
They have paid the maximum fine of $5,000 per count, for a total of $25,000.
Cho, a Fremont councilman from 2000 to 2008, was not the subject of the investigation.
He could not be reached for comment for this story.
He lost to Bob Wasserman in the 2008 mayoral race and again to current Mayor Bill Harrison in 2012.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.