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Sen. Ronald Calderon stripped of committee assignments amid inquiry

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Ronald S. Calderon was stripped of his legislative committee assignments Tuesday pending the outcome of a federal investigation into allegations that he took $88,000 in bribes.

Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, also lost a leadership post with the Legislature's Latino Caucus.

The suspension of Calderon by his peers came on the same day the state ethics watchdog agency opened hearings on allegations that Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) laundered $40,000 in campaign contributions to benefit his brother's Assembly campaign.

The two cases had Senate leaders on the defensive, arguing Tuesday that even unproven misconduct by an individual is not representative of the standards of the broader membership.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the removal of Calderon from six committee assignments, including chairmanship of the Senate Insurance Committee, does not reflect judgment on guilt or innocence.

"The allegations, however, are serious enough to potentially cloud any interaction the senator might have with colleagues, advocates and the public on issues within a committee's jurisdiction," Steinberg said.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 4 to 0 to suspend Calderon's assignments in response to a federal investigation into whether Calderon accepted $60,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a film studio executive in exchange for pursuing an expansion of tax credits for the film industry.

The lawmaker is also alleged to have taken $28,000 from a Long Beach hospital executive for efforts to affect legislation on workers' compensation claims.

The allegations are contained in a sealed FBI affidavit made public two weeks ago by the Al Jazeera America cable network.

Calderon noted in a statement Tuesday that he has not been charged with any crime.

"I am profoundly disappointed by the Senate Rules Committee decision to strip me of my committee assignments," Calderon said, adding that the action comes "while I am defending myself against false allegations."

The Senate's move "sends a risky and unsuitable message regarding our fundamental constitutional rights and the presumption of innocence," the lawmaker said.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), a rules committee member, said she voted for suspension "without prejudice" regarding guilt or innocence. "The allegations are very serious and cannot be taken lightly," she said.

Steinberg said the Senate Ethics Committee is poised to launch its own investigation of Calderon's conduct but will hold off at the request of the U.S. attorney's office.

Later, state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, announced he had removed Calderon from the caucus' executive board and from the chairmanship of the caucus' Member Support and Development Committee.

"Unfortunately, recent allegations against one of our caucus members, Sen. Ron Calderon, threaten to overshadow our accomplishments and undermine the integrity of the caucus as a whole," said Lara, who is also a member of the Rules Committee.

"While we make no judgment as to the veracity" of the allegations, he said, "we have a duty to protect the integrity of a distinguished caucus."

Meanwhile, a short distance from the Capitol, Berryhill faced an administrative law judge hearing allegations by the state Fair Political Practices Commission that the senator laundered campaign funds to help his brother's run for the Assembly in 2008.

The senator had had made the maximum contribution allowed by California law to his brother's campaign. The commission alleges that he then provided $20,000 each to the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee and the San Joaquin County Republican Central Committee, which each gave that amount to Bill Berryhill's campaign.

"Tom Berryhill needed to get money to his brother very badly, and he decided to send it to him through the central committees," Neal Bucknell, senior counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission, said in his opening argument. "It's a straight-up money laundering case."

Charles H. Bell, an attorney for the senator, said there is no evidence that the money his client gave to the central committees was "earmarked" for his brother. The FPPC has alleged 16 violations of campaign finance laws punishable by fines of up to $80,000.

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