California lawmakers took the unprecedented step Friday of suspending three state senators who have been accused of crimes including corruption, perjury and conspiracy to traffic weapons – a move that takes away their power but maintains their pay.
With a vote of 28-1, state senators ousted Democratic colleagues Leland Yee of San Francisco, Ron Calderon of Montebello and Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills by passing a resolution that says they can’t resume office “until all criminal proceedings currently pending against (them) have been dismissed.”
After they acted, Gov. Jerry Brown issued his first public comment on the situation, calling on all three to resign.
The Senate stopped short of permanently expelling the disgraced senators, the only way the Legislature’s lawyers say the state could take away their $7,940 monthly salaries.
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“The satisfying thing would be to expel them immediately,” Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said as he began his floor speech in a chamber packed with television cameras.
“But I reluctantly conclude that what would be satisfying and popular would also run afoul of the most basic American principles of due process, and the idea that people are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
Calderon and Wright have been on paid leaves of absence for roughly a month, which did not require a vote by the Senate. The latest case involving Yee kicked up the pressure on Democrats to take a more formal action.
Yee was charged in federal court Wednesday with corruption and conspiring to illegally import weapons. A 137-page FBI affidavit alleges that Yee offered to help an undercover agent pull off an underground international arms deal and took numerous actions in the Capitol in exchange for campaign contributions. The donors, it turned out, also were undercover agents.
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Calderon on 24 counts of corruption for allegedly taking $88,000 in bribes from a hospital executive and an FBI agent posing as a movie studio owner. And in January, a Los Angeles jury found Wright guilty of eight felonies for lying about living in the district he was elected to in 2008.
Calderon pleaded not guilty. Wright argued he had multiple homes but met all legal criteria to run for the Inglewood-area district. Yee has not yet entered a plea.
“One is an anomaly. Two is a coincidence. Three? That’s not what this Senate is about,” Steinberg said.
He said he wants the Senate to take a deeper look at its culture and is planning an “office-by-office ethics review” next month that will be mandatory for all senators and their staff. Steinberg urged employees to report any unethical conduct they know of during the upcoming confidential meetings.
The Assembly is not planning anything similar.
Steinberg noted that senators and their staff already participate in routine ethics training, but that the allegations against Yee go beyond the realm of political conduct.
“There are some things, members, that you just can’t teach,” Steinberg said. “I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality and the danger of gun-running.”
Yee’s lawyer Paul DeMeester issued a statement saying the suspension is “appropriate in a system that presumes the innocence of the accused.”
Steinberg said he will introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to suspend members without pay. That, however, would have to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and then by voters before it could take effect.
Republican Sens. Joel Anderson of Alpine and Steve Knight of Palmdale – who have been unsuccessfully calling on the Senate to expel Wright for the past month – again said their colleagues should to take the harsher step of expelling him because he’s been convicted by a jury. Steinberg has blocked their moves, arguing that the Senate should wait to see if the judge in Wright’s perjury trial upholds the jury’s guilty verdict.
“Everyone is presumed innocent until they go through the process. Well, one of them has,” Knight said. “So we do have an expulsion there that could define one from the other two. The other two have not gone through the process, no matter how bad the allegations might be.”
Anderson blasted Steinberg for his handling of the situation.
“You give them a Roman holiday by suspending all their ability to work for the people but continue to pay them with the people’s money,” Anderson said. “You’re wrong.”
Anderson was the lone senator to vote against the suspensions. Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat whose district is adjacent to Wright’s, was the only member in attendance who did not cast a vote. Six other senators were absent.
Yee’s staff members have been on paid administrative leave since his office was raided by the FBI on Wednesday. They are expected back to work on Tuesday, said Senate secretary Greg Schmidt.
“These are innocent bystanders who are understandably traumatized, feeling betrayed and uncertain as to their future. We have found from the Calderon experience it is impossible to get anything productive done in the workplace due to media inquiries and interruptions in the days immediately following federal action,” Schmidt said in an email.
Friday’s floor session began with a prayer by Steinberg’s friend, Senate Chaplain Rabbi Mona Alfi, quoting British author Douglas Adams.
“To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money,” she said. “And that is sincerity and integrity.”