Updated 11:35 a.m. Friday
California's political watchdog agency took the unusual step Thursday of asking prosecutors to investigate whether BART violated state laws that prohibit spending taxpayer funds on political campaigns.
Even as it approved a $7,500 fine against BART for campaign disclosure violations connected to the campaign for a $3.5 billion bond measure in 2016, the Fair Political Practices Commission voted to ask the state attorney general and the district attorneys in three Bay Area counties to launch criminal inquiries into whether the transit agency broke laws beyond the commission's jurisdiction.
The fine penalized BART for improperly spending about $7,800 in support of Measure RR. The measure -- on the ballot in its three core counties of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco -- proposed raising property taxes to support an agency effort to improve its tracks, tunnels, computer systems and other infrastructure. It passed with an overall 70 percent yes vote.
The size of the fine drew complaints -- most notably from state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, a longtime BART critic -- that the penalty was little more than a slap on the wrist. Glazer urged the FPPC to scrap the proposed fine, which its staff had negotiated with the transit agency, and impose the maximum fine of about $33,000. Glazer had also called for state and local prosecutors to look into the case.
FPPC Chair Alice Germond said at Thursday's commission meeting in Sacramento that on one level the FPPC's process had worked.
"I think it's important to acknowledge that ... BART did admit that they made a mistake, that they erred," Germond said. "That is the ultimate goal here, I think -- somebody did something wrong, and they have admitted it."
In its stipulated agreement with BART, FPPC staff said the $7,500 fine was sufficient given the penalties levied in comparable cases and because of a several other factors.
"Although the commission considers BART’s violations to be serious, the absence of any evidence of an intention to conceal, deceive, or mislead; the voluntary filing of the delinquent campaign statement; and the absence of a prior record are mitigating," the agreement said. "BART contends that it did not intend on engaging in campaign activities in support of Measure RR."
Germond said the penalty failed to address deeper concerns about misuse of public funds for campaign purposes.
"What I would like to do is talk about how serious it really is to use public funds to advocate for a campaign for any issue," she said. "It is the concept of misusing public funds that I think we all here are very disturbed about, and we want to send a warning and not create a precedent that it's a minor little slap on the wrist kind of issue."
The four-member commission approved her motion to send a letter to the state attorney general and the district attorneys in the BART counties "to urge further prosecution in this case."
Alameda County district attorney's spokesperson Teresa Drenick said in an email Friday "we are aware of the matter and are reviewing it." The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office said it hadn't yet received any specific referral or request from the FPPC. The offices of the San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
In a statement, BART said it had not heard from prosecutors' offices.
"We have been and will continue to be committed to following the law," the agency said.