Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Senate ethics reforms real or just image management?

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2014 - 5:46 pm

With three of his Democratic colleagues accused of crimes, the state Senate’s top leader, Darrell Steinberg, is in total crisis response mode these days.

Steinberg says he’s morally outraged by the allegations lodged against Sens. Rod Wright, Ron Calderon and, most recently and most sensationally, Leland Yee, and is worried that the cases will unfairly tarnish the Senate. He promises steps to bolster legislative ethics.

On Friday, at Steinberg’s behest, the Senate formally suspended all three senators until their cases are resolved. Federal charges against Calderon and Yee are still outstanding, while Wright has been convicted in state court of lying about his residence but is trying to get the jury verdict overturned.

On Tuesday, Steinberg and his designated successor, Kevin de León, announced that they were canceling this weekend’s Pro Tem Cup, aimed at raising many thousands of campaign dollars from special interest groups, many with business pending in the Legislature.

The statement said the event’s cancellation was “in light of the very recent and extraordinary breaches of the public’s trust by three individuals …”

“In its place,” Steinberg and De León said, “we intend to spend this weekend in our districts having an open and public conversation with our constituents about the work ahead for this Legislature and this state.”

It all sounds quite high-minded, but, as William Shakespeare once penned in another context, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks …”

Much of the money has already been received for the Pro Tem Cup golf tournament, and Steinberg said he does not intend to return it. Nor would any contributors ask for a refund; that would be a breach of unwritten Capitol protocol.

And how about the suspension – with pay – that the Senate decreed last week for its three supposed miscreants?

Willie Brown, the former speaker of the Assembly and mayor of San Francisco, has a different take.

Writing in his San Francisco Chronicle column over the weekend, Brown declared: “Make no mistake, the state Senate vote to suspend … was intended to stop the political bleeding as quickly as possible. It was a move by the body to protect itself, pure and simple.”

Brown, who was the subject of official investigations himself, albeit without any result, opined that had the Senate moved to expel the trio, it could have backfired.

“Hearings for Yee and Calderon would have opened up a Pandora’s box of questions about what constitutes a bribe versus a political contribution – not a subject politicians want to discuss openly or in detail,” he wrote.

The question, which only time will answer, is how much of the damage control strategy now being pursued in the Senate is a genuine effort to improve its ethics and how much is just image management?


Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

Read more articles by Dan Walters



Dan Walters, political columnist

Dan Walters

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than a half-century, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. At one point in his career, at age 22, he was the nation's youngest daily newspaper editor.

He joined The Sacramento Union's Capitol bureau in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, and later became the Union's Capitol bureau chief. In 1981, Walters began writing the state's only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events and, in 1984, he and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee. He has written more than 7,500 columns about California and its politics and his column now appears in dozens of California newspapers.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1195
Twitter: @WaltersBee

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