Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — The last of three state senators whose indictments roiled California state government agreed to plead guilty Monday to accepting bribes in exchange for supporting legislation.
Former Sen. Ron Calderon, 58, will plead guilty to mail fraud through the deprivation of honest services, according to a plea agreement filed in federal court in Los Angeles. Prosecutors dropped more than 20 other charges in exchange.
Calderon faces up to 20 years in prison, though prosecutors said they would ask that he get no more than six years. He had been set for trial next month.
Fallout from the 2014 criminal charges that separately ensnared Calderon and then-fellow Democratic Sens. Leland Yee and Rod Wright continued into last week’s primary election, when 75 percent of voters gave state lawmakers the ability to suspend the pay of legislators who are accused of wrongdoing while in office.
In unrelated cases, Yee, of San Francisco, was sentenced to five years in federal prison in an organized crime case centered in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wright was convicted of lying about living outside his Los Angeles district.
Calderon’s brother, former state Assemblyman Thomas Calderon, 62, pleaded guilty last week to a federal money laundering charge for allowing bribe money earmarked for his brother to be funneled through his firm.
“Public officials who engage in corrupt behavior threaten the basic fabric of our democracy,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said in a statement.
Deirdre Fike, chief of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, called it “pay-to-play corruption by public officials and their associates.”
According to Ron Calderon’s plea agreement, he agreed to support legislation that the government says helped a hospital owner maintain a long-running and massive health care fraud scheme. The law was repealed in 2013, and the hospital owner was prosecuted separately.
In exchange, the hospital owner paid $30,000 to Calderon’s son for three summers of work, according to the plea agreement.
Calderon also acknowledged taking money from an undercover FBI agent who posed as the owner of a Los Angeles movie studio and sought Calderon’s help promoting an unsuccessful bill that would have expanded tax credits for the film industry.
In exchange for supporting the bill, Calderon accepted $12,000 worth of trips to Las Vegas and a $25,000 payment to a bank account belonging to his brother’s consulting company, according to the plea agreement.
The undercover agent also paid Calderon’s daughter $3,000 a month for work she didn’t do and a $5,000 payment toward his son’s college tuition, the plea agreement said.
His attorney, Mark Geragos, didn’t immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Gary Winuk, former chief of enforcement at the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, called charges against the three senators “a bit of a sad chapter in California history.”
“I think it really shows that there can be consequences in engaging in that type of behavior,” said Winuk, who now practices law and teaches campaign and government ethics at McGeorge School of Law of the University of the Pacific in Sacramento.
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who serves as president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said the convictions may be a deterrent.
“I don’t think that it means that we’ve rooted out all the potential corruption in city halls or state capitols or D.C. It means there were a few egregious cases that were brought to justice,” Levinson said.
Voters remain skeptical, she said, because they perceive that lawmakers routinely and legally accept large sums of money and do favors for donors. “They took business as usual and they crossed the line into illegal behavior,” she said.
The California Senate last month reversed a fundraising blackout imposed after the scandal that barred lawmakers from seeking or accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists during certain periods.
The Assembly never adopted the fundraising limitations, which Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said created an unfair disparity between the two chambers.