California Senate panel approves tougher ethics rules

California Senate panel approves tougher ethics rules
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), left, speaks on a bill, while Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, works at his desk at the Capitol in January. Both men were suspended in March. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The state Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday approved three measures aimed at improving ethics in the scandal-plagued upper house, including the creation of an ombudsman to receive allegations of misconduct and a blackout on campaign fundraising during the last month of session.

The three resolutions next go to the full Senate for approval. They were drafted in response to the suspension of Democratic Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco, Ronald Calderon of Montebello and Roderick Wright of the Inglewood area after the three were charged with criminal violations in separate cases.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the Senate has a good process for holding senators accountable, "But there is always room for improvement and certainly the events of the past year have given us all pause," he said.

Senate Resolution 43 by Steinberg would create an ethics ombudsman "to facilitate the receipt of information about potential ethical violations" and help the Senate protect whistle-blowers from adverse consequences.

Senate Resolution 44 by Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) would, starting Aug. 1, prohibit members of the Senate from accepting campaign contributions from companies and groups that employ lobbyists for eight weeks around the approval of the budget and the end of the year’s session. De Leon said the measure was needed “to affirm the public’s confidence in this elected legislative body.”

Senate Resolution 45 by Steinberg spells out 12 standards of conduct to be applied to senators. For instance: "Each Senator and each officer or employee of the Senate shall conduct himself or herself in the performance of his or her duties in a manner that does not discredit the Senate."

Steinberg said the new rules “will not fix all of the challenges and problems that have risen to public attention, but will have a demonstrable, positive effect on the culture of the Senate and strengthen the integrity of our institution.” Republican Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield voted for the measures, calling them "a first good effort."

Meanwhile, in an unrelated action, the panel also approved a shakeup in committees that could help Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) in his candidacy for secretary of state. The panel approved Steinberg’s recommendation that Padilla become chairman of the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, which oversees many issues involving the secretary of state.

Padilla replaces Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pacoima) as committee chair and officials said the move was made to allow Torres to focus more on chairing the Public Employment and Retirement Committee.