Trips to Las Vegas Deplete Assemblyman’s War Chest

Times Staff Writer

California Assemblyman Ron Calderon has obliterated his campaign war chest months before he faces an opponent in November, spending the money on Las Vegas hotels, restaurants and cigars, according to campaign spending reports.

Calderon, whose 58th Assembly District encompasses southeast Los Angeles County communities, including Whittier, Downey and East L.A., raised $342,600 last year in contributions and spent $427,300, according to financial records filed with the California secretary of state.

Although the freshman Democrat, who is uncontested in the March 2 primaries, has had fundraisers commanding ticket prices of more than $1,000 apiece at pop concerts and title boxing matches, he is facing $97,500 in debts and has many expenditures on credit, according to campaign account records dated as recently as Feb. 14.


Calderon said he would resolve his debts before the November election, when he will face Republican attorney and businesswoman Rita Topalian.

Topalian, a 58-year-old Whittier resident, faces at least two hurdles: Democratic registered voters in the district outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1, and a Calderon family member has held the seat for 16 of the last 22 years.

Calderon said he would raise funds aggressively, as he has in the past. A ticket to one of his Las Vegas fundraisers at an Oscar de la Hoya fight cost donors $3,200. Another fundraiser cost $1,500 per person to attend a Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake concert in Sacramento, Calderon said.

The assemblyman from Montebello has spent $28,500 during at least four separate trips listed as fundraisers and staff retreats to Las Vegas, where the politician stayed at the Mandalay Bay and Venetian hotels and casinos, records show. Calderon, who won his Assembly seat in 2002, said his expenditures were work-related and part of building a support base.

He said he has not received complaints from financial contributors or residents of his district, a largely working-class area of more than 420,000 people that is 70% Latino and has a median annual income of $39,000.

“I’m doing my job,” said Calderon, 46. “That’s the message I’m sending to my constituents.”

While there are extensive laws that govern spending of public money, there is little scrutiny over a politician’s spending of campaign funds.

“It raises ethical questions, not legal questions,” said Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

“He can argue legitimately that the expenses were election-related or government-related, even if they appear misguided and certainly unnecessary,” Stern said. “It sends a message that he doesn’t need campaign money. He’s lavishing it on his staff. It shows he’s very extravagant with his money and doesn’t have reelection problems. If he did, he’d be counting the pennies.”

The Fair Political Practices Commission, which randomly audits a quarter of the Assembly every two years, is charged with determining if a legislator uses campaign money for legitimate expenses.

Calderon said a three-day staff retreat last March helped bring his capitol and district office staff together. The excursion for at most 10 people cost $4,182.33 for rooms at the Venetian, $1,194.25 for meals at one of the hotel’s restaurants, and $1,685 in airfare for staff, records show.

“Las Vegas has great conference facilities,” Calderon said. “It gets the staff in a great mood and it gets them excited about their jobs.... I wanted to show my appreciation for my staff.”

Other expenditures included $6,100 to Celebrity Connection, a company that hires celebrities to attend private events, and $1,193 to Beverly Hills Cigar, according to the financial statements.

Records also list office expenses such as $166.99 for Casual Corner, a woman’s clothing store, $149 for, a website selling poker-related tables and accessories, and $119.06 for Nine West, a women’s shoe store.

Calderon’s financial management is a stark contrast to that of the 30 other freshmen in the Assembly.

Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) exceeded Calderon’s fundraising totals by accumulating $590,000 in 2003, but he spent $242,000, just over half of what Calderon spent. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) spent the second most of any freshman Assembly member at $320,000, which was $100,000 less than Calderon spent.

Other first-term Assembly members from L.A. County, such as Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk) and Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), spent between $84,000 and $237,000 last year.

“It’s a matter of strategy,” Calderon said. “That’s theirs, this is mine. Mine will prove more productive and fruitful.”

Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who was elected to the Assembly in 2000, said Calderon’s expenditures were “a lot to spend in a non-election year but since he’s new, you also tend to spend more in the beginning consolidating your base.”

Aside from paying off his debt, Calderon said he was now focused on contributing money to the party and building support for future elections, which may include a run for state Senate. He hopes to raise a total of $500,000 this year and to give $200,000 to the Democratic caucus.

“I was hoping he would be stockpiling his money,” said Paul A. Smith, vice president of the California Grocers Assn., which contributed $2,000 to Calderon last August. “We would have liked to have seen him have a war chest. At the same time, I trust he spends his money wisely ... we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.”

Calderon said he was adept at raising money, sometimes taking suggestions from contributors, as he did when he bought a block of seats for the De la Hoya fight for a fundraiser, making $76,800.

In June, he held a fundraiser at the Arco Arena in Sacramento at a Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake concert. And last month, Calderon hosted a fundraiser in Anaheim at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

“The minute you get complacent [is] the minute you become an un-effective public official,” Calderon said. “You have to continue to fundraise.”

Calderon also raised money for charity, such as last year’s $14,000 donation from his campaign account to Bridge of Faith, a Whittier group that provides social services to young women, records show.

Calderon was appointed assistant majority leader to the Assembly’s Democratic leadership on Feb. 12, several weeks after news of his expenditures was first reported by the Sacramento News & Review, a weekly publication. A spokesman for Nunez said the speaker considers Calderon a “capable and effective leader.”

The assemblyman’s family has prospered politically over the last two decades, often helping one another out.

Records show Calderon contributed $20,000 to his sister-in-law’s successful campaign for the Montebello Unified School District board in November. Marcella Calderon is married to Calderon’s older brother, Tom Calderon, who held the 58th District seat from 1998 to 2002 before losing a bid for state insurance commissioner.

After the failed election, financial statements show, Tom Calderon received $60,000 in political consulting fees from Ron Calderon. Previously, the older brother had paid the younger one $27,000 in political consulting fees between 2000 and 2001.

Ron Calderon said his brother was a “brilliant strategist” who made the difference in 2002, when Ron Calderon beat his closest rival by six percentage points.

The first Calderon to hold the 58th District seat was the eldest brother, Charles Calderon, from 1982 to 1990.