The California Senate Legislative Ethics Committee should begin an immediate investigation into the allegations of bribery of Sen. Ron Calderon rather than waiting to see if he is charged with a crime or resigns. If the committee doesn’t act, Californians should consider replacing it with an independent ethics commission.
The recently leaked FBI affidavit detailing Calderon’s distasteful quips to undercover agents featured the all-too-familiar plot line of a politician who has used his office for personal gain only to fall from grace. Californians have seen this movie before and know that it usually ends with the accused official resigning from office in order to avoid a legislative inquiry and then seeing criminal charges dropped.
Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned the day before he was scheduled to testify before an oversight committee. He had been accused of soliciting insurance companies to support nonprofit funds that promoted his career and benefited his family.
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley resigned the same day the Legislature announced it would not compel him to testify if he stepped down. As with Calderon, one of the many charges against Shelley was hiring a staffer of dubious qualifications at the request of a donor.
Assemblyman Mike Duvall resigned shortly after he bragged about an affair with a utility lobbyist into a microphone he didn’t know was on. The FBI dropped charges against him shortly thereafter, and the ethics committee was told it no longer had jurisdiction to investigate him once he resigned. Since there was no investigation, Duvall could later claim his only fault was to engage in “inappropriate storytelling.”
While the loss of office and the shame of a career-ending scandal may or may not be punishment enough, resolving ethical abuses through resignation sweeps the problem under the rug rather than bringing out the full details through either a criminal trial or a legislative inquiry.
Californians need to hear from all sides in the Calderon affair in order to assess not only whether he is fit to hold office, but also whether reforms are needed in our ethics and campaign finance laws.
If indeed part of the bribery involved a senator soliciting funds for a nonprofit fund controlled by a family member, perhaps California needs stricter regulations dealing with donations to nonprofits made at the “behest” of an elected official. Perhaps we should prohibit elected officials from soliciting employment, gifts or anything of material value for their family members.
More importantly, an ethics crisis such as the Calderon sting could provide an opportunity for the Legislature to demonstrate that the vast majority of its members are of high integrity and are unwilling to turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior. As someone who has served as a longtime watchdog over the California Legislature, I believe Calderon’s reported actions are not commonplace. But voters won’t know this unless the Legislature responds to this threat to its institutional integrity.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect senators to investigate one of their own. Human nature makes that a difficult proposition. If the Senate fails this test, California should consider establishing an independent ethics commission as Congress did in 2008 in the wake of a scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. While not perfect, the Office of Congressional Ethics has been an improvement over the days when Congress was in charge of policing its own ethics.
Derek Cressman is a former vice president of the government watchdog organization Common Cause and a current candidate for secretary of state in California.