Calderon family wields political clout

06/16/2013 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 5:50 PM

COMMERCE – Robert Fierro, a preschool teacher and a city council member in this industrial town of fewer than 13,000 residents, didn't fully fathom the tidal forces and the powerful family he was taking on in 2008.

He soon learned what he came to see as realities of California's 30th Senate District in southeast Los Angeles County: You don't provoke the political clan that is the Calderon family. Especially, you don't mess with one of its preferred patrons, the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

"If you go after their special interests, they were going to come after you," said Fierro, who barely survived a Calderon-backed attempt to recall him from office.

The clout and entitlements of this local dynasty are under scrutiny after FBI raids on the Sacramento office of Democratic state Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Southern California businesses with ties to his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon. The two are now directing reporters to their lawyers.

In this diverse working-class district, where the family has long been revered and feared, residents find themselves rethinking their encounters with the Calderons over the years.

Darrell Heacock, a local Realtor and longtime school board member in Montebello, remains an admirer and defender of the family. He calls them a "team of winners," "articulate" and "effective."

"I have no idea what this flap is about," he said.

Five years ago, Fierro learned firsthand of the influence the Calderons wielded after he took issue with a recycled water pipeline pushed by Central Basin, whose water district offices in town sit beside the I-5 freeway and its choking traffic.

He demanded that water board officials appear before the city to justify why Commerce should be tunneled under for "a million-dollar project with only one or two customers" in other towns – a golf course in nearby Montebello and a power plant in Vernon.

Fierro and a fellow council member opposing the pipeline, Tina Baca Del Rio, were subjected to a recall election by a never-heard-of local citizens committee that, in little time, amassed more than $120,000 for attack mailers.

The donors included the Calderon for Senate campaign of Ron Calderon, a lawmaker who carried bills for the water district, and the Calderon Group Inc. consulting firm of Tom Calderon, a formidable player who had lucrative contracts with Central Basin and its business partners.

Del Rio was voted out of office. Fierro narrowly hung onto his seat.

"It was all about not going along with the program," Fierro said. "That was the way they took things."

Region's troubled legacy

The Senate district of Ron Calderon spans 19 suburban cities, plus a small slice of Los Angeles. The heavily Latino region is home to 850,000 people, including thousands of undocumented immigrants ineligible to vote.

Gritty industrial sectors and warehouses dominate the region, dotted by urban pump jacks extracting oil.

Its local governments recently have been tainted by corruption.

Six former council members were convicted in March of stealing tax dollars in the town of Bell by paying themselves generous salaries as their city manager, the alleged architect of the scheme, earned compensation reaching $1.5 million a year.

A scandal involving similar greed by public officials rocked the nearby city of Vernon. Federal investigations also brought criminal convictions in bribery probes in Huntington Park, South Gate, Cudahy and Santa Fe Springs.

In 2012, Fierro himself was sentenced to eight months' house arrest and five years of federal probation for hiding a political contribution by funneling it through other donors. He said last week that corruption may go unchecked in the district because of low voter participation and a hard-working populace with little time for political involvement.

"One freebie leads to another freebie, and the next thing you know there is a bigger scheme, a bigger scandal," he said.

In this sprawl of aging suburbs, the Calderon family established a firm family hold on state legislative seats. Its tenure began when the oldest, Charles Calderon, was elected to the Assembly in 1982, and has continued with the 2012 Assembly election of his son, Ian Calderon.

"Before all this happened, most people wouldn't have been caught dead saying something negative about them," said Ron Beilke, a former mayor and council member from Pico Rivera and a veteran of water politics. "They are power players, the Kennedys of our community, though I don't want to demean the Kennedys."

Political and professional rivals say they have felt the brunt of Tom Calderon's temper when they dared question his Central Water Basin connections or challenge him for office. Others talk about reports that Ron Calderon has accepted roughly $40,000 in gifts. The Bee earlier this month published a database detailing those gifts, including lavish golf trips, spa treatments and private flights while in the Legislature.

"Chuck Calderon is the statesman and Tom is the bully," said Luis Marquez, a Downey City Council member who ran in a bitter 2012 Assembly race against Tom Calderon last year, attacking him over his dealings with Central Basin and his relationship with a disgraced former mayor of Bell. "And Ron is the one who thinks the Legislature is a frat house for himself and a place where he can do everything he can to help out his brother, Tom."

Ron Calderon's attorney Mark Geragos, who didn't respond to a request for comment, has said his client has done nothing wrong.

Tom Calderon's lawyer, Shepard Kopp, suggests the vitriol comes from self-interested competitors.

"Tom Calderon has always conducted himself and his consulting businesses ethically and legally and any suggestions to the contrary come from his political adversaries or people attempting to further their own agendas," he said.

The family seemed largely untouched by controversy until 2011, when a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that Tom Calderon had earned more than $750,000 since 2004 as a consultant and legislative adviser to the Central Basin Municipal Water District even as his brothers supported the district's interests at the Capitol. Political opponents went on the attack.

His contract with the district, which has spent an additional nearly $1.1 million lobbying Sacramento lawmakers since 2007, was ended earlier this year.

Tom Calderon also served as board president of the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, a non-profit run by George Cole, a former Bell mayor later convicted in the city's pay scandal. The Times reported that Oldtimers received $2.5 million in Central Basin contracts – including $1 million for installing low-flow toilets in the town of Maywood.

One of Tom Calderon's clients, a Solana Beach water management service named Water2Save, was awarded a nearly $1 million federal project grant through the water district. In a legal review later commissioned by the Central Basin board, Calderon, a consultant and board member for Water2Save, denied representing the company in dealings with the district.

Kopp, his private attorney, said Water2Save ultimately ended up not taking on the Central Basin project.

D.J. Waldie, a Los Angeles historian and author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," said local water districts have long moved "a significant amount of money" in lobbying, consulting and contributions "and there was political hay to be made and futures to be made in these water boards that were insulated from public scrutiny."

On June 7, federal authorities served a sweeping subpoena on Central Basin. The subpoena requested contracts, invoices, files, physical documents and electronic records related to Tom Calderon, the Calderon Group, Water2Save and the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, according to a copy obtained by The Bee.

The subpoena also sought files related to George Cole as well as Gilbert Cedillo Jr., Central Basin's business development manager and the son of former state lawmaker and recently elected Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo. In addition, it requested Central Basin files related to federal grants and federal stimulus spending, competitive bids and lobbying and political consulting contracts.

Political pipeline

Central Basin was founded in 1952 to manage water distribution for water districts now serving 24 cities.

By the mid-2000s, Central Basin hired Tom Calderon, began courting Ron and Charles Calderon and pushed into water development. In 2009, Central Basin was awarded $5.6 million in federal stimulus funds for a recycled water pipeline – called the Southeast Water Reliability Project – from Whittier to Vernon.

Meanwhile, Central Basin also eyed the groundwater business of a rival, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

Beikle, the former Pico Rivera elected official, worked as a governmental affairs representative for the Water Replenishment District in 2009 and 2011, when Ron Calderon and Charles Calderon introduced three bills on behalf of Central Basin.

Beikle said Ron Calderon's Senate Bill 701, which said the Water Replenishment District "shall cooperate" with Central Basin by providing records related to its operations, could have effectively put Central Basin in charge of its rival.

He said other legislation by Charles Calderon in the Assembly in 2009 and Ron Calderon in the Senate in 2011 would have added water assessment fees that could have increased costs for the Water Replenishment District and other groundwater producers neighboring Central Basin's jurisdiction.

None of the bills passed.

"The motivation was simple harassment. It was to put the MRD so under attack that they could be broken up, with the Calderon brothers leading the charge and Central Basin getting a piece of the action," Beilke said. "It was helter-skelter at its finest – and it failed."

Beilke, who later worked briefly as an assistant general manager at Central Basin, recounted that Tom Calderon approached him outside the district offices and brusquely assailed him for criticizing him. "He basically challenged me to fight him," Beilke said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.' "

Council member Marquez of Downey said he also faced Tom Calderon's wrath.

Marquez entered the 2012 race for the Assembly's 58th District seat – ultimately won by Cristina Garcia, co-founder of an anti-political corruption group, BASTA. Marquez said Calderon called him for a meeting.

"He said, 'Listen, you young punk, do you know who you're messing with?' " said Marquez. Marquez said Calderon crudely informed him that his family had held dominion over "this district for the last 30 years."

Mario Guerra, mayor of Downey, said many local cities and their officials believed they paid a price for not supporting the Calderons.

Guerra was concerned "about the contracts Tom Calderon was getting" from the Central Basin as well as the "non-transparent way" that Central Basin seemed to provide contracts to Calderon's clients or business associates. Guerra said he appeared before a Sacramento legislative committee, demanding an audit.

"I testified that those two (Tom Calderon and Central Basin) needed to be investigated," Guerra said.

Instead, the state ordered an audit of Downey over a city loan to its local water agency.

Guerra found it hard to believe it was coincidence. Given the recent FBI activity, he now worries whether the Calderons will be the subject of still another scandal to tarnish the region.

"If any of the accusations are true, it continues to be another black eye," Guerra said. "It continues to happen in southeast Los Angeles, and I'm sick and tired of it."

Just outside the borders of Montebello, Calderon family members remain welcomed regulars at the Dal Rae, an upscale Pico Rivera restaurant with a piano bar, black leather booths and exquisite servings of lobster thermidor, filet mignon pepper steak and banana flambé.

In Montebello, where Charles and Tom Calderon got their political start on the Montebello school board and Tom's late wife, Marcella, served as board president, Heacock still sees them as civic pillars "focused on public service."

"I think they have a lot more support than has been in the papers," Heacock said, adding, "Until something really bad comes out, I would feel supportive of them."

Despite their political profile, many in the changing district don't seem to know who the Calderons are. Recently on Montebello's Whittier Boulevard, amid the "quinceañera" dress shops, the panaderia bakeries and the pet store with screeching macaws, virtually no one recognized the Calderon name or had heard of the FBI investigation.

But longtime resident Salvador Gonzales, 57, a Vietnam veteran and cabinet laminator who graduated from Montebello High School, said he's following the story. If any Calderon is guilty of wrongdoing, he said, "send him up the river."

Still, Fierro, the former Commerce City Council member who drew the Calderons' ire and a recall election for opposing the Central Basin water pipeline, now finds himself feeling sorry for those who once went against him.

"I actually pray for them," said Fierro, who reflected on his own scandal and sentencing. "Their family, their kids, their nephews are the ones who will be affected. What's in the news is very tragic. And it's a difficult situation they're going through."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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