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Sen. Ronald Calderon takes paid leave while fighting corruption charges

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Ronald S. Calderon said he is taking a paid leave of absence while he fights federal corruption charges, a departure that will cost Senate Democrats in the Legislature their supermajority and endanger some policy priorities of Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Calderon made the request Sunday evening, and it was granted by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

"I will be seeking a voluntary leave of absence," Calderon said in a statement. "This is not a resignation since I still have my day in court. However, due to the nature and complexity of the charges, and the discovery materials that I will have to review, I expect this to be a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the session in August."

Calderon said he wanted to focus on fighting the charges and doesn't "want to distract from the important work of the Senate and my colleagues on serious issues affecting my constituents and the people of California."

One casualty of Calderon's absence could be the governor's proposed constitutional amendment to create a new rainy-day fund, a critical component of his budget plan that he said would cushion against future economic downturns.

Also at risk are a proposed new oil-extraction tax and efforts to put propositions on the statewide ballot to repeal a ban on affirmative action and restrict the way politicians raise campaign funds.

Those measures would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, and all face opposition from Republicans. Some GOP support would be required to reach that threshold.

Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello, was indicted last week by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering and related offenses. He is accused of helping to facilitate a $500-million healthcare fraud scheme.

The 24 felony counts include accepting nearly $100,000 in bribes, along with gourmet meals and high-priced golf games, in exchange for his influence on legislation.

Calderon pleaded not guilty and was freed on a $50,000 bond guaranteed by his wife. His brother, Thomas, a former member of the Assembly, was charged with money laundering in the same case and also pleaded not guilty.

Steinberg last week gave Ronald Calderon until Monday to resign or take a leave of absence. If he had refused, he would have faced a Senate vote to suspend him.

Calderon is the second state senator to take a leave of absence in a week.

Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) was granted a leave Tuesday after his conviction on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. Prosecutors say he lied about living in the Inglewood district he represents when he ran for the seat.

The departures will require Steinberg to gather some Republican support on legislation that, just last year, could have sailed through the Legislature without a single GOP vote.

The Democrats' lowered numbers "could impact a number of different issues this year," said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for the Senate's GOP members.

Republicans may not be inclined to support Brown's rainy-day fund proposal. They want a different savings measure that's already scheduled for the ballot in November. DeMarco described the ballot measure as the "preferred option" because it is more binding.

The loss of the supermajority also could affect Steinberg's proposal to scale back an $11-billion water bond also set for November and put a fresh measure in its place. That would require a two-thirds vote, as would a proposed tax on oil pumped from the ground in California — legislation most Republicans oppose.

The oil measure, by Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), already has strong opposition from the oil industry, said Teala Schaff, a spokeswoman for Evans. The lack of a Democratic supermajority "makes it a little harder," she said.

Democrats could now be forced to include Republicans in any consideration of tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote to be approved.

The loss of the Senate supermajority also could hold up a campaign finance measure that would expand disclosure requirements for nonprofit groups and other organizations that spend money in California elections.

The bill, by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), was introduced in response to the uproar over an anonymous $11-million donation from Arizona that made its way to a committee opposing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase proposal in 2012.

The Democratic supermajority passed the measure in the Senate last year, but it could be amended, requiring another Senate vote.

A two-thirds vote is also needed to put a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) on the ballot that would repeal California's ban on affirmative action in university admissions decisions.

Whether the Democrats can regain their previous strength is unclear.

Wright's district is heavily Democratic, but if his conviction is upheld at a hearing May 16 and he is expelled or resigns, it would take about 80 days to hold a special election to fill his seat.

If a runoff were not needed, the Democrats could regain their supermajority, shortly before the Aug. 31 end of the session.

Allan Hoffenblum, who edits the California Target Book, a political almanac, said he thinks the odds are even that Democrats will have supermajorities in both houses after the November election.

In that election, "both sides have an opportunity to achieve their goals," Hoffenblum said. "The Democrats can keep or even expand their supermajority. The Republicans have the opportunity to take away that supermajority."

That will be the drama of the legislative elections, Hoffenblum said.

Meanwhile, some GOP lawmakers object to Calderon receiving a paycheck on leave while facing such serious charges.

"Sen. Calderon should do the right thing and resign," Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) said Friday afternoon. "Until he is convicted or found not guilty, he should be 'suspended' at the very least."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writers Melanie Mason and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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