LOS ANGELES – A California state senator was charged Friday with accepting $100,000 in bribes, lavish trips and no-show jobs for his children in exchange for pushing legislation to benefit a hospital engaged in billing fraud and participating in a film industry tax scheme that actually was an FBI sting.
The 24-count federal indictment against Sen. Ron Calderon, a Democrat from a politically prominent family in Los Angeles' blue-collar suburbs, depicts a rogue legislator eager to trade his clout at the state Capitol to enrich himself and his family. His brother Tom, a former state lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, was charged with money-laundering for funneling bribes through a tax-exempt group he controlled, prosecutors said.
"When public officials choose to callously betray the trust of the people they serve and selfishly abuse the privileges of public office, then we will take all necessary steps to hold those persons fully accountable for their behavior," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte said.
The charges come after a long-running corruption investigation that has tarnished the state's majority party -- Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers in the Legislature. The charges also threaten the patriarchs of a family that rose to political prominence from the heavily Hispanic, working-class communities southeast of Los Angeles.
"Because they knew how to run elections and they knew how to speak to a newly incorporating group, Latinos, they knew how to get people elected," said political scientist Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. For any would-be candidate around their home base "you needed their support."
Ron Calderon has denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Mark Geragos, did not return repeated telephone messages but planned to issue a statement later Friday.
Tom Calderon's attorney, Shepard Kopp, said his client would fight the charges. Tom Calderon appeared in court in handcuffs on Friday and pleaded not guilty to seven counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to launder money. His bail was set at $25,000 and he was ordered to surrender his passport, stay in the continental U.S. and appear for a jury trial starting April 15.
"Every single action they describe my client as having taken was done with innocent intent and no knowledge that there was anything illegal about any of these acts," Kopp said in a telephone interview. "The indictment alleged that he knew that there were payments being made that were bribes or money that was being paid so that he would take some kind of legislative action. Nothing could be further from the truth."
If convicted on all counts, Ron Calderon could face nearly 400 years in federal prison. His brother, if convicted, could face a maximum penalty of 160 years in confinement, prosecutors said.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, speaking on behalf of the chamber's Democratic caucus, called on Calderon to resign or take a leave of absence.
"Given the seriousness of charges that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a public official, Senator Calderon's continued service is a cloud over all the important work that we must get done this year," Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement.
The indictment details a rampant pay-to-play culture in which Ron Calderon used his influence in the Legislature to extract money or other financial benefits from those who wanted favors.
Those bribes, prosecutors said, included trips to Las Vegas, flights on privately chartered planes and jobs for Ron Calderon's son and daughter in which they were paid but did little, if any, work. The film studio, an FBI ruse, hired his daughter for a $3,000-a-month job, and a Long Beach hospital executive involved in the medical scam hired his son for three summers at a rate of $10,000 per summer, the indictment said.
The indictment alleges Ron Calderon took money from an undercover FBI agent who posed as the owner of a Los Angeles movie studio and sought Calderon's help promoting a bill that would expand tax credits for the film industry.
A related filing in Sacramento federal court said Calderon flew to Las Vegas on May 4 to meet with two undercover agents, one of whom he believed was the owner of the film studio in Los Angeles and the other whom he thought was a film investor. He was met at the Bellagio Hotel by two other FBI agents who "explained to Calderon that they worked for the FBI's public corruption squad and had been investigating Calderon for quite some time."
He was interviewed for about three hours but was not arrested.
"The FBI agents offered Calderon the opportunity to cooperate in their investigation but made it very clear that they were prepared to move forward with their investigation if Calderon turned down their offer," according to the filing.
"Despite his purported desire to cooperate with the government, Calderon claimed that the information he could provide to the FBI agents would be of little value," the filing says. Agents met with him five more times in May.
Ron Calderon repeatedly offered to wear a transmitting device, though he said he would not record family members. He did record one person on two occasions, the filing says, though it does not say if the person was a public official. Those recordings did not result in any charges, the filing says.
Calderon claimed he was ill on the day he was supposed to record the person for a third time, and broke off his cooperation, the filing says.
The indictment also says Ron Calderon accepted money from a Long Beach hospital executive to promote legislation that would have been favorable to the hospital.
Bills related to both issues never made it out of the Legislature.
Calderon was stripped of his legislative committee assignments in November, and the Senate Select Committee on Film and Television Industries that he chaired was disbanded.
After that action, Calderon responded by trying to tar the Senate's two leading Democrats. His attorney filed documents in federal court in Sacramento saying a raid on his Capitol office came after he refused FBI requests to wear a recording device and act as an informant against Steinberg, the Senate president, and Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, another Democrat.
Steinberg and de Leon, who is in line to succeed Steinberg as the Senate's leader later this year, have said federal prosecutors have told them they are not targets of the investigation at this time.
In the midst of an election year, it was difficult to gauge whether other Democrats could suffer political fallout from the Calderon case, said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston. Another Democrat, Sen. Roderick Wright, was convicted last month of voter fraud and perjury for lying about the location of his Los Angeles County residence. He has been allowed to remain in office while awaiting sentencing in May.
"I think it certainly gives Republicans an opening to talk about the `culture of corruption' that results with one-party government," Gerston said. "Just how much damage it does is hard to tell, but I'd clearly like to be in the Republican camp rather than the Democratic camp because they're clearly on the defensive."