SACRAMENTO—Every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. That's the American way.
But it doesn't mean that anyone who has not been found guilty is qualified to hold public office.
Specifically right now, it doesn't mean that a corruption suspect is fit to occupy a seat in the state Legislature.
It only means that Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) — if he can make bail, which he has — shouldn't be locked up without being convicted.
FOR THE RECORD:
Capitol Journal: A column in the Feb. 27 Section A about state Sen. Ron Calderon's fitness for public office said that state Sen. Roderick Wright lived in a Baldwin Park house outside of his district. The house is in Baldwin Hills.
It shouldn't entitle him to continue drawing his $95,291 annual salary.
The California Constitution gives each legislative house the power to "judge the qualifications … of its members" and by a two-thirds vote expel anyone.
Senators should be asking themselves whether this house embarrassment, Calderon, who has pleaded not guilty, really is qualified to be a colleague.
How comfortable are they — Democrats and Republicans — sharing membership in their august club with someone who has been indicted on 24 federal counts of bribery, money laundering, filing false tax returns and other forms of corruption?
If they're not, they should exercise their constitutional authority to give him the boot. His alleged crimes strike at the heart of democracy and further erode public trust in representative government, especially in the Legislature.
Yes, we all mouth the theory about someone remaining innocent until proven guilty. But I don't know of anyone who believes Calderon can beat all 24 raps and be totally exonerated. He's a walking corpse politically.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) on Monday gave Calderon one week to resign or take a leave of absence. If he doesn't, Steinberg said, there'll be a vote to suspend him.
"Given the seriousness of charges," Steinberg said, "Sen. Calderon's continued service is a cloud over all the important work that we must get done this year."
But the problem with taking a leave or being suspended is that the suspect would still be entitled to his public pay, even if not his $163 daily expense allowance. Any leave should be unpaid. It shouldn't be a paid vacation.
The Senate apparently doesn't have the power to withhold pay unless there's a resignation or ouster.
But Calderon could opt not to take a salary — as mega-millionaire Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he was governor.
Actually, I feel the same about Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood). Last month, a jury found him guilty of a far lesser crime: eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud that involved lying about where he lived.
Wright should have known better than to claim a rented room in an Inglewood house that he has owned for 37 years — and occasionally lived in — as his official "domicile." When not in Sacramento, he actually lived in a Baldwin Park house outside his district.
But Wright's domicile — his official home — needed to be in the Senate district in order for him to run to represent it in the Legislature. It's a screwy law. Once elected, he could have legally moved outside the district and, a few years later, scooted back in temporarily to seek reelection.
"The law itself is arguably ambiguous," Steinberg told reporters Monday. "Members of both houses face similar situations. One district attorney prosecutes and another doesn't."
Says political consultant David Townsend, who advises mainly moderate Democrats: "When I think about all the legislators who have not lived in their districts and this guy gets hit with eight felonies, it's just not right."
By contrast, members of Congress aren't required to live in their districts — only in the state.
For all those reasons, as I've previously written, Wright should be booted out of the Legislature once he is formally convicted, but not locked up in jail. Bar him from running again and fine him big. But don't waste scarce prison space on a harmless politician.
Wright's conviction, however, is still not final because it hasn't been officially "entered" — accepted — by the trial judge. The senator is hoping the judge will toss out the verdict. And Steinberg was awaiting the judge's decision — now postponed until May 16 — before moving to oust Wright.
But peer and public pressure was mounting on Wright and Steinberg. So on Tuesday, Wright took a paid leave of absence.
"Clearly there were [legislators] who had some comfort issues," Wright told me. "It was becoming a house distraction. And there are always those who don't want to miss a good opportunity for a political kick in the groin."
In fact, three Republicans announced they would move Thursday to expel Wright.
Like Calderon, if Wright is only taking a leave, it shouldn't be a paid vacation. He should refuse a paycheck. It's not right for legislators to be paid by the public while their only work is fighting criminal charges.
Calderon's indictment reads almost like a movie script. He allegedly accepted $100,000 in cash bribes, plus fancy dinners, luxury golf excursions and plane travel in exchange for legislative favors. And his children got paid for doing virtually nothing.
Particularly troubling were the charges that Calderon and his brother — former Assemblyman Thomas Calderon — created a fine-sounding nonprofit, Californians for Diversity, to funnel money into their own pockets. It was supposed to be helping fellow Latinos.
Sen. Calderon should resign or be expelled. At the least, his salary should be donated to a real organization that promotes diversity.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times