Ronald S. Calderon’s knack for raising campaign cash and collecting gifts has attracted attention, often unwanted, since he arrived in Sacramento more than a decade ago. Now the Democratic state senator finds himself in the sights of federal investigators.
Authorities are looking into the Montebello lawmaker’s “income stream,” a law enforcement source familiar with the case told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
Calderon’s ties to the Central Basin Municipal Water District in southeast Los Angeles County appear to be part of the inquiry. Two local city officials and a utility contractor told The Times that the FBI interviewed them about legislation written by Calderon, and about water district consulting contracts held by the lawmaker’s brother Tom Calderon.
One of the officials, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is ongoing, said “100% of what they were asking about” involved the Calderons and the water district.
The U.S. attorney’s office and FBI remained mum about the investigation. On Tuesday, FBI agents raided Calderon’s state Capitol office, carting away boxes and a weathered briefcase.
U.S. Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) said she has heard complaints for more than a decade from cities she represents about the agency’s lack of transparency and questionable spending of public funds.
In particular, Napolitano questioned how the district spent $5.6 million in federal funds she helped secure to build infrastructure for a regional system to recycle water.
The district received a subsequent research grant from the Department of Energy in conjunction with HydroEarth, a Lake Forest-based water management firm. But instead of moving forward with the original proposal, Central Basin amended the project and opened it up for competitive bidding. Agency officials subsequently chose to partner with a different company, Water2Save, a firm that paid Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman, $140,000 per year.
“It was just ridiculous,” she said. “This is ratepayer money. It’s not the Central Basin’s money.”
Tom Calderon also had a $12,000-a-month consulting contract with the water district.
James Roybal, who in January took over as president of the water district’s board of directors, said that earlier this year the agency decided not to renew that agreement.
“We wanted to get rid of contracts, some of which were outrageous,” he said.
Roybal said that as far as he knows, no official at Central Basin has been interviewed by FBI agents as part of their investigation, and no records have been requested or confiscated by federal authorities.
Ron Calderon’s attorney, Mark Geragos, denied that his client did anything wrong and accused federal investigators of being “out of control.” Geragos said the documents seized by the FBI are protected by “legislative privilege.”
Calderon, 55, could not be reached for comment. He did not appear at a scheduled Banking and Financial Institutions Committee meeting Wednesday.
Even before the federal investigation became public, Calderon and members of his family have drawn scrutiny for their overlapping political and financial lives. From 2009 to 2012, family members were paid more than $57,000 from campaign accounts held by Calderon and his brothers -- Tom and Charles -- and his nephew, Assemblyman Ian Charles Calderon (D-Whittier). More than half of that money went to Cameron Calderon, Tom’s son.
In 2009 and 2010, Calderon’s campaign paid his brother Tom $105,000 in political consulting fees through Tom’s firm, the Calderon Group, according to secretary of state records.
Ron Calderon’s daughter, Jessica, last year was paid out of three of her father’s campaign accounts, records show.
Over the years, Calderon has managed to stand out in a Legislature awash in gifts from lobbyists. He was one of the few lawmakers to accept Lakers tickets from a developer after he voted to support an environmental waiver for a proposed football stadium in the city of Industry.
An Indian tribe, a pharmaceutical company, a telecommunications association and others have picked up the tab for his golf outings, which cost up to $420 a round, according to gift disclosures filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the state’s powerful prison guard union, and affiliated groups paid more than $4,000 for one of Calderon’s summer golf outings at which other union-related groups bought the senator a $420 club, binoculars and other trinkets.
Calderon also received $820 in gift cards from a campaign account of his brother Charles, a former assemblyman. Calderon has created multiple accounts to collect political donations -- his legislative accounts, a legal defense fund and a committee formed to support a potential run for state controller next year, when term limits will force him out of the state Senate.
Campaign finance records show Calderon has been skilled at raising money and spreading the wealth to campaign accounts of other politicians.
“He demonstrated not just a willingness to push the boundaries, but a brazenness,” said Douglas Heller, who battled Calderon as executive director of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group. “He squeezed every bit of special interest fruit he could find.”
Calderon’s role in legislation regulating plastic grocery bags is a recent example of how legislative records and campaign finance accounts are intertwined.
In 2011 and 2012, he sponsored bills that would have required companies to use recycled content in bags, and forced grocery stores to buy only bags printed with a recycling message. He withdrew both before they could receive a hearing. This year Calderon and other members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus voted down a proposed ban on plastic shopping bags.
During that time, Calderon and the Latino caucus’ political committee received sizable donations from the world’s largest producer of recycled plastic bags, Hilex Poly -- the sponsor of one of Calderon’s bills.
Campaign finance records show the South Carolina company contributed $32,000 to the state Democratic committee, $15,000 to the Latino caucus leadership PAC and $3,500 to campaign accounts held by Calderon. (He returned $1,850.)
On Wednesday, Senate officials corrected earlier statements that authorities searched the Capitol office of the Latino caucus. They said a second office searched Tuesday also belonged to Ron Calderon.
News of the federal investigation sent a chill over the Capitol on Wednesday, and normally talkative lawmakers either declined to comment or publicly fretted about the probe’s effect on voters’ confidence in state government.
“Things like this are never good to read about,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles). “The public already doesn’t have us in high esteem.”
Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) said he had no inkling that something might have been going on with Calderon that drew the attention of the FBI.
“Ron’s a friend,” Canella said. “I’m praying for him and his family.”
Megerian and St. John reported from Sacramento, Winton from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy, Anthony York, Melanie Mason, Hector Becerra, Ruben Vives and Phil Willon contributed to this report.