Dan Morain: Calderon needs closer look

June 14, 2013 

Sen. Ron Calderon, whose Capitol office was searched by the FBI last week, might never be indicted or see the hard side of a prison cell.

But ever since he arrived in Sacramento, Calderon's fund raising has intersected with his legislation, his lifestyle and his family. Democrats who control Sacramento have enabled it. Calderon dwells on legislation that might seem trivial. But his bills can mean millions for the insiders who seek his help.

Business lobbyists want narrow legislation on behalf of clients. Certain lawmakers dutifully agree. The interests dole out donations. It's all perfectly legal.

Not much has changed from the middle-1980s when FBI agents posing as businessmen sponsored a phony bill to create a fictional shrimp processing plant, and used money as bait. On Aug. 24, 1988, they raided the Capitol offices of several legislators in what became known as Shrimpscam. One of those was Sen. Joseph Montoya, a Democrat from La Puente.

"You're scared. You're scared to death," Montoya told me last week, recalling what went through his mind as he arrived at work on Aug. 25, 1988. "The bogeyman at the time was not the IRS, but the FBI."

The FBI executing a search warrant is not an indictment or a conviction. Still, feds don't search the offices of elected officials lightly. Montoya guesses that for Calderon, the gravity of the situation might not have sunk in.

"Eventually, he'll end up understanding there is nothing more powerful than the federal government," Montoya said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that in a corruption case, jurors must find there is "an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not perform an official act" in exchange for a contribution or honorarium. If indicted, that decision could become highly relevant to Calderon.

Honorariums have been banned. But there are other ways for legislators to live well while doing the public's business, as Calderon demonstrates. He is a regular at fund-raisers and conferences at Pebble Beach and in Hawaii, and helps pay for his lifestyle by convening fund-raisers in Las Vegas and at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.

Diversity PAC, a political action committee operated by the Calderons, spent $82,941 from 2009 to 2012 at exclusive Bandon Dunes Golf Course on the Oregon coast. Ron spent $5,880 more at the Dunes through a legal defense fund he once set up.

Calderon reports paying $157,000 in consulting fees to brother Tom Calderon, and Tom's consulting firm, Calderon Group. Tom, a former assemblyman, has been raising money to run for Ron's Senate seat when Ron is termed out next year.

Imagine that you have the high honor of being elected to serve the people of the state of California. You might try to make the Tax Code fair, improve education or figure out how to feed the poor.

Ron Calderon proposed Senate Bill 777, to expand the market for fireworks by permitting them to be sold during the days leading up to New Year's Eve. The bill proposes to deal with the disposal of seized fireworks, which contain hazardous material. To help pay for disposal, the bill would permit the state fire marshal to sell seized fireworks.

But a Senate analysis cited a problem: "It is unclear whether the firework sales would generate enough revenues to offset the costs of the sell-back program. This bill does not create a reimbursable mandate."

Despite those doubts, the Senate approved the bill 31-6. The bill's backer, an Alabama fireworks maker, has donated $3,500 to Calderon.

Then there was Calderon's 2007 legislation legalizing the sale of running shoes made of kangaroo leather. The Senate and Assembly approved it, and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed it into law.

In 2010, Calderon pushed through a follow-up bill that permitted the sale of kangaroo shoes until 2016. The Senate approved it 23-5. The Assembly approved it 53-19. Again, Schwarzenegger signed it.

Adidas, which sought the legislation, has been a minor campaign donor in California. But as the bill awaited a vote in August 2007, Adidas gave $1,500 to then- Assemblyman Charles Calderon, and paid $1,230 for a Ron Calderon fund-raiser.

Adidas donated $2,360 to Ron Calderon in October 2007, two days before the bill was signed into law, and contributed $13,600 to the California Democratic Party in the fall of 2007. Such is the way of Sacramento, enabled by politicians who control the town.


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