State Sen. Ronald S. Calderon hopped on a Las Vegas-bound plane last spring for a meeting with an independent film executive and one of the man's investors.
But the appointment at the Bellagio hotel took an immediate unexpected turn for the Southern California lawmaker, according to court records. The businessmen Calderon expected to meet were actually FBI agents with an unsettling message: He was under investigation for public corruption, and he could either cooperate with authorities or face the consequences.
Calderon (D-Montebello) initially agreed to wear a wire in an effort to implicate other politicians, authorities said. That arrangement eventually fell apart, and on Friday prosecutors announced a sweeping indictment against Calderon charging him with bribery, fraud, money laundering and related offenses. Calderon's brother, Thomas, a former member of the California Assembly, is also charged with money laundering.
The charges stem from a scheme in which Ronald Calderon allegedly solicited and accepted nearly $100,000 in cash bribes, as well as gourmet meals and golf outings, in exchange for his influence as a lawmaker. His actions, prosecutors say, helped facilitate a half-billion-dollar healthcare fraud — one of the largest such scams in the state's history.
The mastermind of the healthcare fraud was Michael Drobot, who had owned Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. Drobot has admitted to bribing Calderon to use his influence to keep a state law on the books that allowed Drobot to pass on inflated expenses from spinal surgeries to workers' compensation insurers. The surgeries were performed on patients referred by doctors and chiropractors who were paid illegal kickbacks financed by the inflated billings, authorities allege.
Drobot told authorities he hid some of the bribe money by paying consulting fees to Thomas Calderon and by paying Ron Calderon's college-age son $30,000 for summer employment in which he worked only a few weeks, according to court records. Drobot has agreed to plead guilty and faces up to 10 years in prison. He has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their ongoing probe of the Calderons, court documents state.
"Mr. Drobot has acknowledged and accepts responsibility for his actions," said his attorney Terree Bowers.
U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. announced the indictments at a jammed press conference at the federal building in downtown Los Angeles.
"When public officials choose to callously betray the trust of the people they serve and selfishly line their pockets with money," Birotte said, "then it's up to us ... to make sure we hold those individuals accountable."
Bill Lewis, the top FBI official in Los Angeles, said the charges were not just about money. "Corruption robs us of trust in government," he said.
Ronald Calderon is expected to surrender Monday morning in Los Angeles and be arraigned in U.S. District Court, prosecutors said.
"We welcome the opportunity to disprove these allegations in a courtroom," said his attorney, Mark Geragos.
Thomas Calderon surrendered Friday morning. His attorney, Shepard Kopp, said the former assemblyman was expected to be released on a $25,000 signature bond. Kopp said his client "categorically denies ever committing any criminal violation."
"Every act described in this indictment was above board and fully legal," Kopp said. "Tom was engaged in his business as a government consultant and was performing these duties and had no knowledge of any illegal activity."
Kopp would not discuss specific allegations but said, "I've told the government that Tom's not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, and now apparently they're going to hear those words from a jury."
The Calderon family has been woven into the fabric of southeast L.A. politics, with at least one of three Calderon brothers serving in the state Legislature for the last 32 years.
When Ronald Calderon's offices were raided by FBI agents last year, there was a sense among political circles that the investigation would soon corral others — and it did. Soon, federal prosecutors were digging into entities with strong ties to the Calderons.
Though he departed early last year after his contract was not renewed, Thomas Calderon has been the subject of wide-ranging subpoenas served at the Central Basin Municipal Water District, where he was seen as an influential field marshal of the public agency's policies. No charges have been brought in that probe.
After Ronald Calderon was lured to the Bellagio last year, the senator initially agreed to cooperate and was interviewed for about three hours, according to court papers filed Friday. He agreed to wear a wire and record his conversations with fellow public officials and others, the documents state. But after recording one conversation, he began "postponing" meetings with his FBI handlers.
His office was raided by agents armed with a search warrant the next month.
Sen. Calderon's entry into what he thought was the world of entertainment was done through an FBI agent working undercover as Rocky Patel, supposedly the head of a small independent studio in downtown L.A., lawmakers told The Times.
According to court documents, Calderon agreed to support legislation he knew would benefit the supposed film executive in exchange for the man's hiring Calderon's daughter for a $3,000-a-month job that the senator knew "she simply did not perform."
According to one of the senator's former staffers, Calderon grew close to "Patel."
"They had a very tight relationship," said the former employee in an interview with The Times. The employee asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "It was one of those things where if Rocky called, right away you connected him to the senator."
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Ruben Vives and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.