Senate ponders Ron Calderon’s fate

lrosenhall@sacbee.comFebruary 24, 2014 

State Sen. Ron Calderon pleaded not guilty to corruption charges in a Los Angeles courtroom Monday, and was freed after posting a $50,000 bond.

About 400 miles away at the state Capitol, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg emerged from a closed-door meeting of his colleagues and said they’d give the Montebello Democrat a week to respond to their call for him to resign before taking any action on his future in the house.

Calderon’s arraignment, on 24 charges alleging he took nearly $100,000 in bribes to sway legislation, was the latest turn in an unprecedented spate of legal troubles to befall the California Senate. He appeared in court wearing handcuffs.

The court proceeding came less than two months after a jury found another Democratic state senator, Rod Wright of Inglewood, guilty on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in the district he represents.

Steinberg has asked for Calderon – who’s been charged, but not convicted – to resign. But he says he does not want the Senate to oust Wright unless and until the judge upholds the jury’s guilty verdicts.

“I consider each of the situations on their merits,” Steinberg said. “They are different situations.”

Outside the courtroom, Calderon lawyer Mark Geragos told The Associated Press that the senator will decide later whether he will resign, depending on how much time he may need to work on his criminal case.

“All things being equal, that is what he loves to do,” Geragos said of Calderon’s senatorial duties. Geragos, who did not return messages from The Sacramento Bee Monday, said Calderon is “in relatively good spirits” and urged people to “take a deep breath and not reach conclusions” before evidence is presented in court.

Trial was tentatively set for April, but the prosecutor said it probably would be six months to a year before Calderon faces a jury because of the paperwork involved in the complex case, The Associated Press reported.

Steinberg has said that if Calderon does not resign or take a “complete leave of absence,” the Senate will take a vote to suspend him. The Legislature has never suspended one of its own, a move that would allow Calderon to receive his base salary, but not the extra per diem payments lawmakers get for working in Sacramento.

While Calderon has not been convicted, the indictment against him “alleges the most serious violations of law and of our ethics,” Steinberg said. He said Wright’s felony convictions, on the other hand, stem from an “arguably ambiguous” law concerning the definition of a candidate’s legal domicile.

He noted that lawmakers in both houses have faced questions about their residency and not been prosecuted. He’s willing to wait, he said, until the trial judge upholds the jury’s verdict, which legal experts say happens in the vast majority of cases. Sentencing, which has been delayed, is now scheduled for May 16.

Steinberg said Wright “can no longer remain a member of the Senate” if the verdict stands.

If both Wright and Calderon leave office, Democrats would lose the two-thirds supermajority they hold in the state Senate, though the loss would likely be temporary because both senators represent solidly Democratic districts in blue-collar parts of Los Angeles County.

Still, not having a supermajority for several months could keep the Democrats from winning votes on tax measures, political reform proposals and constitutional amendments. Steinberg said that while he’s concerned about his party losing power, his plans for dealing with Wright and Calderon are “based upon the facts.”

Republicans in the Senate supported Steinberg’s plan to wait a week for Calderon to respond. But they’ve had a mixed response to the decision to allow Wright to continue serving.

“Clearly we’re in uncharted waters here,” Senate Republican leader Bob Huff said Monday.

“The pro tem calling for action on one that hasn’t been to trial while not having action on one that has been, needs to be addressed.”

Does that mean Republican senators will call for a vote to suspend or expel Wright?

“Stay tuned,” Huff said.

Three Republican senators – Steve Knight, Andy Vidak and Joel Anderson – have already sent a letter asking Steinberg to allow the Senate to vote on Wright’s fate. Anderson continued making his case Monday, saying the Senate should address the case that’s deeper into the criminal justice process before taking a vote to suspend Calderon.

“I prefer that we approach this alphabetically. Convictions before indictments,” Anderson said. “It’s wrong of this body not to allow a vote.”

Most members of the Assembly have said little about the Senate’s troubles. But Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who defeated Calderon’s brother Tom Calderon to win office in 2012, has been vocal in calling for Ron Calderon to step down since an FBI affidavit leaked this fall alleging Ron Calderon had taken tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from a hospital executive and an undercover agent posing as a film studio owner.

Tom Calderon pleaded not guilty on Friday to money laundering and conspiracy charges in Ron Calderon’s corruption case.

Garcia also said in an interview last week that the Senate should vote on Wright’s fate.

“We have a senator who broke the rules,” Garcia said.“I think the Senate needs to be consistent with their actions. I really think the Senate should take a vote. ... If they vote to leave him in that seat, and they have a right to, then that’s fine. They need to go home and explain that to their constituents.”

Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, said senators are saddened by their colleagues’ legal troubles.

“That said, the good of the house is more important than the individual,” he said. “We will do what we think is best for the house and for California, notwithstanding some strong personal feelings for Rod and Ron.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

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