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Calderon's spending raised red flags before FBI search

Calderon's spending raised red flags before FBI search
State Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), right, pictured in 2004, has attracted scrutiny for his use of campaign funds. He's now said to be under federal investigation. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO — The only thing more impressive than Ron Calderon's ability to raise money was his speed at spending it.

The Democratic state senator's reputation as a profligate wheeler and dealer began when he was a freshman lawmaker a decade ago. In one year, he raised $342,600 and burned through $427,300, running up debt as he spent donors' cash on Las Vegas hotels, women's clothing and cigars.

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Calderon didn't seem to be worried about winning his first reelection campaign — he was only the latest member of a political dynasty based in Montebello, a working-class Los Angeles County community that had already helped propel his two older brothers to the California Legislature.

"His last name has helped him win that seat," said Hector Chacon, the school board president in Montebello and a member of another local political family. "Before he got elected, I couldn't tell you what he did."

Over the years, Calderon's spending habits have raised eyebrows in the Capitol. Now he's managed to gain the attention of federal authorities. The FBI searched his office on Tuesday, leaving after dark with cardboard boxes and plastic cases.

A law enforcement source familiar with the case said the investigation is tied to Calderon's "income stream," one of several new details about the probe in Thursday's editions of The Times. A lawyer for the senator said his client has not done anything wrong.

Calderon has stood out even in a Legislature awash in gifts from lobbyists. He was one of the few lawmakers to accept Lakers tickets from a stadium developer after he voted to support an environmental waiver for a proposed football arena in the City of Industry.

"He squeezed every bit of special interest fruit he could find," said Douglas Heller, who battled Calderon as executive director of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group.

Calderon could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but he defended such spending in a 2009 interview.

"No tax dollars are attached to the expenses," he said. "The events and these conferences prove very valuable."

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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