Ron Calderon takes leave of absence from California Senate

jwhite@sacbee.comMarch 3, 2014 

After months of intensifying scrutiny, Sen. Ron Calderon will take an indefinite leave of absence while he fights felony charges.

Calderon’s departure drops Democrats below the two-thirds supermajority they claimed during the 2012 election. It marks the latest loss of legislative power for Calderon, who had already been stripped of his committee assignments.

Controversy has trailed the Montebello Democrat since FBI agents raided his office last summer, the first public glimpse of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. A grand jury recently charged Calderon with 24 felony counts related to accepting bribes in order to steer legislation for his benefactors.

Calderon pleaded not guilty last Monday. After Calderon’s arraignment, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, gave him a week to take a leave of absence, resign or face an expulsion vote.

In a statement released Sunday evening, Calderon took the first option but emphasized that his legal fight had not ended.

“This is not a resignation, since I still have my day in court,” Calderon said in the statement. “However, due to the nature and complexity of the charges, and the discovery materials that I will have to review, I expect this to be a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the session in August.”

Assuming the legal proceedings do stretch beyond the end of the 2014 legislative session, Calderon’s career as a state senator has effectively ended. He is forced from office by term limits at the end of this year.

Steinberg issued a brief statement saying he had accepted Calderon’s request for a leave. Although Calderon will not be eligible for the $163-a-day payments lawmakers draw, he will continue to receive his full $95,291 salary.

The case against Calderon centers on two alleged pay-to-play legislative transactions. After an undercover FBI agent posing as a film executive approached Calderon about altering the state’s film tax credit, according to a federal indictment, Calderon accepted thousands of dollars in payments to his daughter.

Federal authorities also say Calderon accepted bribes from a former hospital CEO who wanted to preserve a lucrative worker’s compensation rule allowing him to charge extra for spinal surgeries. Michael Drobot has already pleaded guilty to inflating the cost of procedures, with California’s compensation system often reimbursing the higher price, and to directing business to his hospital by paying kickbacks.

Calderon and his brother Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman, also face charges alleging that they took steps to conceal the scheme.

With his decision to take a leave of absence, Calderon became the second Democratic senator in a matter of days to step away from the Legislature because of ongoing legal trouble. Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, who was found guilty of eight felony counts stemming from lying about his residence, has also taken a paid leave.

Calling a paid leave an overly lenient penalty for breaking the law, Senate Republicans pushed unsuccessfully last week for a resolution to expel Wright. Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, introduced a resolution to suspend Calderon, which Huff said would not affect his pay, for having “violated the public trust and undermined the honor and integrity of the California State Senate.”

A year and a half ago, triumphant Democrats claimed two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. That show of electoral dominance has now been undone.

The loss of Calderon and Wright drops Democrats one vote below the two-thirds threshold. They will no longer be able to pass new taxes, advance ballot measures or enact immediately effective “urgency” bills without Republican votes.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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