A refresher course in avoiding illegal corruption is being planned for state senators and their staffs. That can't hurt. But it's unlikely to clean up any dirty legislators.
Illegal corruption is not a redundancy. There's also legal corruption.
Legislators, members of Congress and local politicians everywhere are influenced by campaign contributions from private interests, whether the money comes from unions, insurers, oil companies or casino-operating Indian tribes, to name just a handful of corrupting cash cows.
Add governors, presidents and mayors to the list of grateful recipients who often are influenced by political investors when legislation is signed or vetoed and appointees are named to cushy jobs.
That's legal corruption.
It's much harder to detect illegal corruption. Thankfully, the FBI seems to step in every couple of decades and uncovers it with sting operations. Two senators were recently nabbed by undercover agents.
First, Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) was indicted on 24 felony counts that included accepting nearly $100,000 in bribes along with pricey meals and junkets. He has pleaded not guilty. Then Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was arrested on charges of criminal corruption and conspiring to illegally traffic firearms.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) — who seems to be about as squeaky clean as they get in California's Capitol — is desperate to stop the bleeding of whatever public confidence exists in the Legislature. And he wants to teach his colleagues about right and wrong — at least remind them of what's acceptable and forbidden.
So he's planning in late April to shut down the Senate for a day and bring in corruption experts and ethics trainers. They'll hold separate mandatory seminars with lawmakers and top staffers, explaining to everyone where the legal line is.
"I call on our entire body to take a deeper look at our culture," he told senators last week as they suspended — with pay — Yee, Calderon and Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), who was convicted of lying about where he lives.
"It will be a day to reflect," Steinberg told me. "I want everyone from lobbyists to staff members to legislators to recognize and push back against anyone who intentionally or unintentionally mixes official [legislative] action with campaign fundraising....
"I recognize I cannot change this in one full swoop. But I'm asking myself every day, 'What can I do to make something positive out of a very troubling situation?'"
If the Senate leader were to ask me, I'd suggest that more important than ethics trainers, he should bring in some psychotherapists.
Based on the FBI affidavits chronicling the undercover stings, both Yee and Calderon were on paths to political self-destruction.
At one point Yee allegedly is talking to a wire-wearing FBI agent posing as a Mafioso seeking a $2-million arms deal. Yee cautions the agent that the more people involved, the bigger risk there is that the senator will be caught. The agent replies that he has as much to lose as the lawmaker.
He has "a great life and would not do anything to jeopardize" it, the agent says. Yee responds, according to the affidavit, that he is "unhappy with his life and.... 'There is a part of me that wants to be like you.... Just a free agent out there' [and] hide out in the Philippines," where the illegal arms cache is located.
Yee was running for California secretary of state — chief elections officer — but if he didn't win, the agent wrote, he "wanted to move into the private sector and exploit all the relationships he had in Asia for various kinds of activities."
The affidavit continues: "Sen. Yee attributed his long career in public office to being careful and cautious."
Some caution: The senator allegedly is telling an FBI agent he dreams of becoming a mobster.
And it's not like ethics training would have benefited either Yee or Calderon. They constantly lectured undercover agents about the law, obviously knowing it chapter and verse.
"You never take money directly from people and you have to be careful about a tit-for-tat relationship," Calderon allegedly told one agent.
At another point, Calderon reportedly says: "We cannot have a conversation we just had. We cannot have a quid pro quo conversation." And again: "I can't go into an agreement with you saying, 'You give, you know, you do this, and I'll do that.' Because I can't promise you."
But, according to the federal indictment, Calderon did just that.
Yee was always preaching to the agents about being careful. The senator told two of them, the affidavit asserts, that "I'm just trying to run for secretary of state. I hope I don't get indicted."
He even allegedly brought up Calderon's indictment as a special reason for caution. He "believed the other state senator was wearing a wire for the FBI," the agent wrote. Yee: "We just got to be extra-extra careful."
And, the senator allegedly emphasized to another agent, they "could not talk [public] policy at the same time he asked for money."
But if he gets elected secretary of state, he allegedly tells a potential donor, "I'm going to take actions on your behalf. That's one thing you gotta understand."
So the likes of Yee and Calderon already know where the legal line is. But as portrayed by the FBI, they just don't use their knowledge and think they're too smart to get caught.
Along with ethics trainers and psychotherapists, Steinberg should invite in some prison guards to explain how lifestyles could change for dirty legislators.