In a complaint filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission, the Sherman campaign is alleging that Berman vastly, and illegally, overpaid Michael Berman or his political consulting firm for campaign services during two decades in which the congressman from the San Fernando Valley faced only token reelection challenges and spent relatively little to reach voters.
The complaint comes as Sherman and Howard Berman are engaged in a costly, nationally watched battle for the same San Fernando Valley congressional seat. Last year's redrawing of political boundaries placed their homes in the same district, and the state's new "top two" primary system allows members of the same party to advance to the November general election. The two former allies increasingly have attacked each others' records, styles and character.
It is not illegal to hire family members for campaign work, and some other members of Congress do it. But federal campaign finance laws require that the services provided be legitimate and in line with the usual cost, or fair market value, of the job performed.
The Sherman campaign combed through years of Berman finance reports filed with the FEC to try to determine how much money had been spent on so-called voter contact, such as mailers and TV and radio ads, and how much had gone to Michael Berman or his firm, Berman & D'Agostino Campaigns.
From the 1992 election cycle through 2010, the Sherman campaign said it found about $493,000 appeared to have been spent on voter contact, but that Michael Berman, whose specialty is direct mail and other outreach, had been paid $741,500 during the same period.
Parke Skelton, Sherman's strategist, said the usual commission paid to a voter-contact consultant in congressional or legislative races is 10% to 15% of the cost of the mail or ad, a figure confirmed by several other veteran consultants from both sides of the political aisle.
Sherman campaign manager Scott Abrams wrote in the FEC complaint that there was "an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that Howard Berman has used campaign funds to enrich his brother ... for services that were not actually rendered, or has paid campaign funds to Michael Berman well in excess of market value for 'services' in non-competitive races."
"Additionally, the date that such payments were made bear no relationship to when any of these supposed services could have been provided," the complaint continued.
The Berman campaign called the complaint "ridiculous" and said it was meant to distract voters from Sherman's "sparse" record.
"Michael is one of the most well respected and utilized political consultants in California," said Berman chief strategist Brandon Hall. "Countless candidates and initiatives, including Congressman Brad Sherman, have paid Michael for his professional services. Michael has been instrumental in advising Howard over the last 30 years and has been paid for his services."
-- Jean Merl
Photo: Howard Berman, left, and Brad Sherman during their first debate in January. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times