Should accused California legislators still be paid?

Many Californians are outraged that state Sens. Leland Yee, Ronald S. Calderon and Roderick D. Wright, all of whom have been either accused or convicted of crimes, will continue to collect their $95,291 annual salaries while they're suspended from their jobs. It's a paid vacation, critics complain. On the public dime.

In response, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced an amendment to the state Constitution on Friday — the same day he and his fellow senators suspended their colleagues — that would allow the Senate or Assembly to withhold compensation in the future when a legislator is suspended. Currently, neither house has the authority to curtail pay, which is why Yee (D-San Francisco), Calderon (D-Montebello) and Wright (D-Inglewood) will collect paychecks until they resign, are expelled or are termed out. Voters would need to approve Steinberg's proposed amendment, which would probably be popular given the sordid stories behind the recent scandals.

But although it has a certain populist appeal, Steinberg's proposal would trample on the right to due process. Why should a legislator who has been accused of a crime but not convicted have his or her salary taken away? Consider the current situation: Two of the three suspended senators have been charged but not yet tried; no evidence has been presented. Yee has been indicted on federal charges related to public corruption and firearms trafficking, and Calderon faces federal bribery and corruption charges, but no juries have yet been empaneled to consider their cases.

The Senate was right to suspend the two legislators so they can't continue to do the public's business while the charges hang over them. But withholding their pay would go too far. They should be presumed innocent.

Another problem with the proposal is that it gives legislators the option of withholding pay from a suspended colleague, but doesn't require them to be consistent or fair in doing so. This is especially troubling because we've already seen a disparity in how senators are treated: Steinberg demanded that Calderon and Yee take a leave or face suspension, but initially made no such demand of Wright, who has been convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence when he ran for office.

Although it may feel good to yank the pay of elected officials accused of corruption, bribery and other wrongdoing, the fact is that they — like any other accused criminals — must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

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