Lawmakers distance themselves from Calderon
SACRAMENTO — California legislators scrambled Thursday to distance themselves from allegations of bribery and corruption against Democratic Sen. Ronald Calderon of Montebello, a day after details of a federal probe of his activities aired on a television network.
The Capitol was roiling over comments attributed to Calderon in a report by the Al Jazeera cable network, based on what it identified as a sealed FBI affidavit, that he had enlisted other lawmakers to help him influence policy. In exchange, the affidavit alleges, the senator accepted $88,000.
On Thursday, the FBI said it has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the leak of the sealed document.
Meanwhile, Democrats whose names surfaced in the affidavit wasted no time defending themselves. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Sens. Ted Lieu of Torrance and Kevin de León of Los Angeles issued statements denying that they did anything wrong.
The allegations could have an impact on next year’s elections — even the Democrats’ two-thirds legislative majority, said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
“Depending upon the extent that the investigation leads to charges against Calderon and others, the Democrats in the Legislature could find themselves with a serious PR issue,” Gerston said.
The closer the investigation gets to the 2014 elections, “the more Democrats may need to worry and the more Republicans may have an election issue” to run on, he said.
Calderon has not been charged with any crime, and his attorney has denied any wrongdoing by his client.
According to the affidavit, posted on Al Jazeera’s website, Calderon allegedly accepted $60,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a movie executive and $28,000 more from a medical company owner in exchange for efforts to affect legislation on tax credits for the film industry and on workers’ compensation claims.
Steinberg said reading the affidavit made him “sick to my stomach.” He announced that he has removed Calderon from the California Film Commission for “the appearance of impropriety” and will consider taking away other committee assignments in the coming days.
“Nothing is more sacred to us as senators than the public’s trust in the integrity of this institution,” Steinberg said in a statement Thursday. “That’s why it is so shocking and disturbing for us to read and hear the allegations presented in these media reports over the last 24 hours.”
Calderon also told the undercover agent that he gave Steinberg two VIP tickets to a Giants baseball game as part of his effort to get the leader to support a change in the film tax credit program, according to the affidavit. Calderon told the agent that he believed Steinberg supported the change.
Steinberg said he never supported the change, which was not included in any legislation. As for the baseball tickets, Steinberg said they were valued at $37.50 each and were properly reported to a state agency as a gift.
The tax break proposal was a key focus of the affidavit. Lieu said Calderon approached him about supporting a break for small film productions, and he agreed to include that in a letter to Steinberg that he co-signed with Calderon.
“I didn’t know what a small production tax credit was until he came to me,” Lieu said, adding that the letter contained other proposals he wanted that had nothing to do with film tax credits.
Lieu told The Times that he has been interviewed by federal investigators but said he was assured that he is not the target.
The affidavit mentions legislation by Lieu and De León that would have limited reimbursements for hardware and implants used in spinal surgery, which according to some estimates cost the state’s workers’ compensation system tens of millions of dollars.
Michael Drobot, who owns companies that distribute such hardware, would have taken a financial hit if those reimbursements were eliminated.
The legislation stalled. A broader workers’ compensation bill passed in August 2012 that limited how spinal implants were reimbursed through the system.
The affidavit alleges that Drobot paid Ron Calderon about $28,000 in bribes in 2011 and 2012, including $18,000 concealed as payments to Ron Calderon’s son, Zachary, who had been hired for a summer job with the company.
According to the affidavit, Calderon told an undercover agent that, thanks to him and his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, the workers’ compensation overhaul had “language that was more favorable to Drobot.”
Lieu disputed comments attributed to Calderon in the affidavit that he was able to convince Lieu to drop his bill.
The measure “was merged and incorporated word for word into a larger and more comprehensive workers’ compensation reform package that was signed into law,” Lieu said Thursday.
De León also denied that he was influenced by Calderon.
“The U.S. attorney has made clear that Sen. De León is not a target of this investigation and any suggestion that he did something inappropriate is completely false,” said Dan Reeves, chief of staff for De León.
Jeffrey Rutherford, an attorney for Drobot, said Wednesday evening that allegations that his client “engaged in wrongdoing with respect to Ron Calderon is baseless.”
Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.
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