Sen. Ronald Calderon pleads not guilty in corruption case

Facing a 24-count federal indictment and the threat of a vote from colleagues to suspend him from office, embattled state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon said through an attorney Monday that he had no immediate plans to step down from his Senate seat.

Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, appeared in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Monday and pleaded not guilty to charges that he took nearly $100,000 in cash in exchange for favors that, among other things, helped facilitate a $500-million healthcare fraud scheme. The senator, who surrendered to authorities in the morning, was freed on a $50,000 bond guaranteed by his wife.

His attorney, Mark Geragos, said outside court that Calderon would wait until his legal team had a chance to evaluate the evidence prosecutors have against him before making a decision on resigning or taking a leave from his Legislature post.

"Once I decide how much of his time we need in order to defend these charges, then he'll make a decision," Geragos said.

Calderon was indicted last week, along with his brother Thomas, a former state assemblyman, on allegations that he took bribes from a hospital operator and a film executive in exchange for legislative favors. Federal prosecutors said Monday the case arose out of two separate investigations — the FBI's public corruption squad in L.A., and the healthcare fraud task force in Santa Ana — that ended up converging on the senator.

"We believe both cases are very strong," Assistant U.S. Atty. Mack Jenkins said outside court. "This, today, is just the first step in a long process to seek justice against corrupt politicians."

Geragos said the senator, who appeared at his court hearing handcuffed and chained at the waist and seated next to an accused child pornographer, was "in relatively good spirits given the situation." The attorney said the timing of the indictment, which came as he was pressing for answers on the leaked search warrant affidavit of Calderon's office, was "very troubling." He accused the government of a "bait and switch" designed to take the attention away from the leak investigation.

"Coincidence? I think not," the attorney said.

Calderon's court appearance came as Senate leaders announced the senator had one week, until March 3, to either resign or take a leave of absence, after which he would face a possible Senate vote to suspend him from office.

"I think it is fair that we give Sen. Calderon a chance to consider the request we made" last Friday, said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "We are being very deliberative."

Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar said he was willing to go along with the Democrats' move to give Calderon some time to act.

"Certainly, giving time to let some of the issues run their course with Sen. Calderon, who is not here today, is something we are willing to go along with the pro tem on as long as action is coming soon," Huff told reporters.

Some Republicans also demanded expulsion for Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), who was convicted last month on eight felony counts, including perjury and voter fraud. Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) said Monday that he thought the Senate should expel Wright, who was convicted, before acting on Calderon, who has only been charged.

Steinberg said he opposes a motion to expel Wright before a judge validates his conviction and sentence, scheduled to be heard in May.

Steinberg said Wright's case involves "ambiguity" in the law about whether a lawmaker has established a domicile in his district before running for office but that the charges against Calderon "alleges the most serious violations of law and our ethics."

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