L.A. Now

Echoes of a long-ago sting operation

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — It just can't be, what they're saying about state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon — that he took $60,000 in bribes during an FBI sting operation. Nobody these days could be that stupid.


Pocketing the money from essentially a stranger who turns out to be an undercover agent?

I mean, only 25 years after a highly publicized FBI sting in the Capitol resulted in the convictions of 14 politicos — legislators, staffers, lobbyists — in what became known as Shrimpscam.

Didn't every California politician learn from that?

Maybe at least one flunked the history course.

"Twenty-five years is just enough time for people to forget," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"The cycle is pretty predictable. After a scandal, there's a rush to clean up the system. And as time passes, the politicians get that much more brazen until one of them gets caught again. And there's another push to reform. And the cycle starts all over again."

If a federal affidavit disclosed last week by the Al Jazeera cable network is legit, Calderon — a Montebello Democrat from a family of career politicians — also is believed by the FBI to have accepted $28,000 in bribes delivered by a medical company owner.

So the alleged payoffs totaled $88,000.

The $60,000 came from an agent posing as the owner of a film studio in downtown Los Angeles. He sold himself as someone seeking legislation to expand film industry tax credits. The $28,000 allegedly came from a medical entrepreneur, Michael Drobot, who was trying to throttle legislation to limit workers' compensation payments for spinal surgeries.

Attorneys for Calderon and Drobot have denied any wrongdoing by their clients. And no one has been charged.

But the 124-page affidavit cites probable cause to suspect Calderon of bribery, extortion and conspiracy; also mail and wire fraud. The document was filed in support of search warrants that led to a raid on Calderon's Capitol office in June.

It was eerily similar to the FBI assault on the Capitol in 1988, except that several legislators' offices were hit back then. Calderon appears to be the only target this time.

The 1980s federal investigation apparently targeted then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). It was encouraged by Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, who himself got stung and went to prison. Brown wasn't touched.

"Willie was smart enough not to get caught — maybe smart enough not to break the law," says campaign finance expert Robert Stern, who helped write California's political reform act in 1974.

Brown famously cautioned lawmakers to "always assume everyone is wearing a wire."

Maybe Calderon never heard the advice. His dealings with the undercover agent were recorded.

Or he fit the type that legendary Speaker Jesse Unruh shook his head about: Legislators who would get elected, arrive at the Capitol and believe they had become invisible.

"Some really think they can get away with anything because they're legislators," says Stern, who spent several years in Sacramento. "They don't learn from the past. It's hubris. It's stupidity."

In the '80s, the FBI created a fake shrimp processing operation and lured legislators into accepting bribes to support a bill enabling the phony enterprise.

I had thought every legislator knew that story.

Maybe not Calderon.

In the recent sting, the FBI created a fake film company and bribed the senator to secure tax break legislation, according to the affidavit.

Calderon apparently was on a feeding frenzy from the moment the agent cast him bait, according to the affidavit. The agent played Calderon as if the senator were a big bass that had swallowed a fistful of worms, steadily reeling him toward the net.

At their very first Los Angeles luncheon, where they were introduced and talked about a tax break bill, the agent asked the senator if there was anything he could do for him. Calderon then solicited campaign money for his expected Assembly race in 2014.

Others also attended that lunch. But the two lunched alone four months later, and the senator asked the agent to hire his daughter. "She's a good investment," he said. "Any work you could find her would be well appreciated.... Any help you could do for my kids … that's diamonds for me. That's diamonds."

The agent wound up paying Calderon's daughter, Jessica, $3,000 a month for nine months — for no work.

Returning the favor, Calderon agreed to hire the phony film exec's girlfriend — another undercover agent — on the state dime, the FBI alleges.

The affidavit got almost comical at one point. The agent told Calderon that he had acquired an extra $50,000 annually on a picture deal. He asked whether "there is something that you think that I can do to help you out with that fifty each year?"

Calderon suggested a $5,000 payment toward his son Zachary's college tuition. The agent gave him a check for that amount, leaving the payee portion blank.

It wasn't like the senator was completely oblivious of the law. At one point he told the agent, "This is an uncomfortable thing to do, OK?…. We cannot have a conversation [like] we just had. We cannot have a quid pro quo conversation."

So the lawmaker wasn't entirely stupid. Just not very smart.

After reading the affidavit, I do believe it's legit. No one can make this stuff up.

As for Calderon's efforts to expand film industry tax breaks and to kill workers' comp reform, they both failed. Often the system does work.

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