Senate ethics committee hires outside counsel for Calderon inquiry

The California Senate’s ethics committee has hired a former federal prosecutor as a $600-an-hour independent counsel to advise the panel on its inquiry into corruption allegations involving state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, said he has retained Charles J. Stevens, a litigation partner in Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher’s San Francisco office, “to review the facts and make recommendations to the Senate Legislative Ethics Committee on the appropriate course of action moving forward.” Stevens’ appointment, Roth added, is “an important first step to restoring the public’s trust.”

The appointment comes several weeks after Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg ordered Roth’s panel to look into allegations in an FBI affidavit published Oct. 30 by Al Jazeera America. The affidavit details $88,000 in alleged bribes to Calderon.

Calderon has denied wrongdoing. In a federal court filing, Calderon claims that federal authorities retaliated against him for refusing to assist an investigation of Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.

It’s rare for either house to hire outside attorneys to assist on nonpersonnel matters. Independent counsels were involved during investigations of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush in 2000 and of alleged wrongdoing by energy companies during the energy crisis more than a decade ago.

In an interview Thursday, Roth said Stevens’ initial job is to review the affidavit and communicate with the Department of Justice to determine if the committee should open a formal inquiry into any possible violations of Senate standards of conduct.

That review, Roth estimated, will take two to four weeks. Roth, an attorney, said he expects to meet with Stevens next week.

“I don’t know the status of the DOJ investigation or who is involved in that or what areas are off-limits,” Roth said. “My intent as chair is to have someone do the homework ... and formulate a recommendation as to whether there are actions the ethics committee could or should take at this time.”

Stevens and any other Gibson, Dunn colleagues who conduct work for the committee will be paid $600 an hour, Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine said.

Stevens joined Gibson, Dunn in September. The firm announced then that he would focus on government investigations, white collar crime and civil litigation.

Stevens and his law firms have experience on both sides of political corruption cases. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton named him as U.S. attorney for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California and he also was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles-based Central District of California, where he was a member of the public corruption and government contract fraud unit.

In the late 1990s, Stevens helped start the firm Stevens O’Connell and Jacobs. The firm represented state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, while Perata was the target of an FBI probe. No charges were ever filed.

There were other Calderon-related developments Thursday. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, announced that he will introduce legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from shifting money from campaign committees to nonprofits controlled by family members, or asking special interests to make a behested payment directly to the nonprofits.

Hill’s bill also would reduce the reporting threshold for behested payments from $5,000 to $2,500. And the measure would prohibit politicians from spending campaign money on mortgages, club memberships, gifts, concert tickets and other expenses that have shown up in the campaign filings of Calderon and some other lawmakers.