Bee's Best

June 6, 2013

Sen. Ron Calderon no stranger to political fire

Ron Calderon landed a plum assignment back in 2005 when he took the chairmanship of the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee, a position that would give him power over some of the Capitol's wealthiest interest groups.

Ron Calderon landed a plum assignment back in 2005 when he took the chairmanship of the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee, a position that would give him power over some of the Capitol's wealthiest interest groups.

But before Calderon even convened the committee's first hearing under his leadership, he invited 300 lobbyists to a $3,200-per-couple reception at the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, billed specifically for the "banking and finance" sector.

Targeting the fundraiser toward one industry was wrong, he told The Bee at the time, and the invitation was promptly re-worded.

"This will never happen again – I guarantee it," Calderon said then. "I don't like being in this position."

Now a state senator who represents the Los Angeles community of Montebello, Calderon again finds himself under fire. His Capitol offices were raided Tuesday by FBI agents who carried out several boxes of material but would not discuss the nature of their investigation.

Few people around the Capitol are willing to talk openly about the FBI probe, and most who do business with Calderon will not be quoted by name. But interviews with lobbyists and legislative staff members reveal a common theme: When they heard FBI agents were inside the Capitol, there was little surprise that Calderon's office was the focus.

Calderon, a moderate Democrat, is known for fancy campaign fundraisers in Las Vegas, traveling out of state at interest groups' expense, carrying legislation that benefits specific industries and being one of three brothers who treat Capitol politics as a family business.

"He has definitely been a public official who enjoys the perks of being a public official," said Phillip Ung, an advocate with California Common Cause, which promotes transparency in government.

Calderon has accepted more gifts from lobbying groups than any other legislator, a Bee review of lobbyist disclosure reports shows. Since 2000, he has accepted roughly $40,000 worth of gifts, more than double the amount given to any other legislator during that period. Calderon's gifts included many dinners and golf outings, as well as airfare to Hawaii and tickets to see the Lakers, Kings and Britney Spears.

In 2010, Calderon was one of 38 lawmakers the Fair Political Practices Commission questioned for not properly reporting gifts. His case involved a $1,400 weekend he and his wife spent at the Pebble Beach golf resort, hosted by the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies.

In 2007, the FPPC criticized a Calderon bill that would have limited disclosure of donations that interest groups give to a charity at a politician's request. Calderon ultimately had the bill pulled from the governor's desk.

Also in 2007, Calderon inspired the state government to tighten up fundraising rules when he raised $150,000 for a legal defense fund after legal troubles already had been resolved. He had started the fund to deal with a possible election recount. A Bee investigation at the time found that he used some of the money to pay for a golf fundraiser at Bandon Dunes in Oregon that included a $7,000 private flight, a separate golf event at Lake Tahoe, an $800 spa bill and meals while attending a conference in Hawaii.

"Raising money is part of the process, unfortunately," said former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, who remembered Calderon as an affable and cooperative lawmaker when they served together in the Assembly.

"He liked high overhead activities and I like low overhead activities. Everybody's got their own thing."

Calderon now has active campaign committees to raise funds for 2014 runs for Assembly and state controller. His brother Tom, a former assemblyman, is raising money for a 2014 Senate run. His brother Charles, also a former assemblyman, is raising money to run for secretary of state next year.

His nephew Ian is a first-term assemblyman, with whom he shares a Land Park house while in Sacramento.

"Every Calderon has to get elected, and not every Calderon will just breeze through successful campaigns," Charles Calderon said in an interview with The Bee.

The brothers grew up in East Los Angeles before the family moved to the San Gabriel Valley, Charles Calderon said, noting that "neither of our parents had a high school education."

Ron, the youngest of the three, was a gymnast at Montebello High, his brother said, before he moved on to UCLA. He got into politics by helping on both his brothers' campaigns.

Ron has since made his own name as a community leader, Charles Calderon said.

"Ultimately he will be best known for blocking a prison from being sited in the city of Whittier. That's a pretty significant deal," he said.

"That's why Calderons get elected, because in the community, close to where people live and know you, they know what you've done, what you've accomplished."

In the Legislature this year, Ron Calderon is carrying a bill backed by the fireworks industry that would allow fireworks to be sold in California during Christmas week.

It's one of many bills he has carried to benefit businesses over the years. Among them: legislation to give tax breaks to the film industry, allow shoes made of kangaroo skin to be sold in California, expand the kind of betting allowed on horse races, increase the amount of money payday lenders can loan and streamline regulations in the California Environmental Quality Act.

He has also carried bills backed by more liberal interests, including government watchdog group Common Cause and the animal advocates Humane Society of the United States. In 2011, Calderon carried legislation to increase fines for cockfighting participants and spectators.

"My only experiences with him have been positive with respect to support for our agenda," said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for the Humane Society, which sponsored the bill.

Ung, the Common Cause advocate, said Calderon supported the group's mission to make it easier for people to register to vote, authoring a bill to allow online registration and supporting a bill to allow Election Day registration.

"We were happy to work with him," Ung said.

"He's known as being very well-connected. His family has been in the business for two or three decades. So when you work with him, you know he's able to make phone calls to get things done."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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