Shaming Sacramento with scandal in an election year, the Capitol’s crime log keeps adding lobbyists and lawmakers to its rolls. The current convulsion of wrongdoing concerns far-reaching crimes, alleged and proven, involving official malfeasance and public corruption.
As a powerful state senator this week turned himself in to federal authorities in Los Angeles on 24 criminal counts of bribery, fraud, and money laundering, his became the latest in a series of recent cases that collectively cast a pall over the integrity of California’s state government:
The Family Calderon: Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) faces a maximum of 395 years in prison after being arraigned Monday on 24 counts of criminal conduct. Standing in handcuffs in an L.A. courtroom, he pleaded not guilty. Part of a family political dynasty that has wielded power in Sacramento and Southern California for three decades, Calderon allegedly accepted $100,000 in bribes, federal authorities allege, in direct exchange for his support of legislation in two areas.
First, the government’s case charges that he took money from a Long Beach hospital operator, who has pleaded guilty and now is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney, for working in the Legislature to ensure that a spinal surgical procedure, performed frequently in the hospital, would be covered by workers’ compensation insurance; second, Calderon was ensnared in an FBI sting operation, during which he allegedly took money in exchange for pushing a tax-loophole measure to benefit what turned out to be a fictitious film company. Much of the money in both cases came in the form of no-show jobs that went to Calderon’s children, according to the formal statement of charges; Calderon’s brother Tom, a former assemblymember, was also indicted in the matter, for allegedly laundering bribe money through a nonprofit controlled by their family. He also says he is innocent.
The Luxury Lobbyist: Prominent Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat was ordered this month to pay $133,500, the largest such fine ever levied in California, to the state’s watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for illegally providing non-monetary contributions of expensive liquor, wine, flowers, and cigars to 37 elected officials at fundraisers at his home, along with other gifts including tickets and special access to San Francisco 49ers and Sacramento Kings games. The FPPC said the politicians were not aware Sloat exceeded legal limits on gifts, but the commission nevertheless sent warning letters to most of the highest-ranking officials in Sacramento, who attended the fundraisers, including Governor Jerry Brown and all the partisan leaders of both legislative houses.
The Incumbent Perjurer: As reported previously in Capitol Letters [2/6/2014, independent
.com/capitol-letters], Senator Rod Wright remains a member of the Legislature, despite his jury conviction in January of eight counts of perjury and voter fraud connected to false statements asserting that he lived in his district when he did not. Wright’s sentencing last week was delayed until mid-May. Senate President Darrell Steinberg has refused to act to remove his Democratic colleague from office until the formal sentencing hearing, but Wright said Tuesday that he will take an “indefinite leave of absence” to focus on his legal problems. He will continue to receive his $95,291 salary.
Ironically, the scandals come at a time when the public’s opinion of the Legislature has been growing more favorable: In 2010, amid California’s long-running budget meltdown, only 10 percent of voters approved of the job state lawmakers were doing, while 80 percent disapproved, according to the Field Poll; this year, Field reported nearly as many voters now approve of the Legislature — 40 percent — as disapprove — 44 percent.
As a political matter, the impact of the corruption cases is still unclear: Both Calderon and Wright’s seats are safely Democratic, but their party would lose its crucial two-thirds majority in the State Senate for whatever period it takes to fill a vacancy that occurs in either; a former employee in Sloat’s case has filed a civil lawsuit, charging him with more improprieties that could implicate others; and federal authorities, who describe the Long Beach hospital matter as “an ongoing investigation,” have said that Calderon not only acted to involve other legislators in his schemes but also wore a wire as part of the sting operation during at least two still-unidentified conversations.
“More than robbing us of money,” FBI assistant director Bill Lewis said in the announcement of Calderon’s indictment, “corruption robs us of trust in government.”