Editorial: The culture of corruption in the Capitol has been festering for years

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:46 AM

California state senators’ vote to suspend three of their own Friday hardly removes the lines of slime left by public corruption charges against two sitting senators and the conviction of a third on state perjury charges for lying when he claimed to live in the district he represented.

The step was unprecedented. But the departure of Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello, Leland Yee of San Francisco and Rod Wright of either Baldwin Hills or Inglewood raises broader questions about Sacramento.

“One is an anomaly. Two is a coincidence. Three?” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said. “I am calling on our entire body to take a deeper look at our culture.”

The issues have been festering for years. It almost always comes down to money and the perpetual campaigns being run by elected officials.

Successful politicians and their very smart consultants believe voters don’t view money in politics as a top-tier issue. Election results prove that point. But virtually every issue flows from money, and every politician craves campaign cash.

Why are California’s tobacco taxes low? Why won’t the Legislature regulate e-cigarettes? Start with the $171 million that tobacco companies have spent on California politics since 2000.

There are many rules and laws. It’s part of the culture to skirt them.

The state bars lobbyists registered to do business before the Legislature from giving to state candidates’ campaigns. No problem. Open a congressional campaign, as Calderon did. Lobbyists happily contributed.

State law caps the size of donations to legislative campaigns at $4,100 per donor. Want more? Open a campaign committee for ballot measures, as Yee and many other state politicians have done, including Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, and take $10,000 at a time, or $15,000 or more.

Say you’re termed out and there’s no easy way to raise money. There’s a ready solution. Establish a committee for, say, lieutenant governor in 2018, as Steinberg did. As an added benefit, the cap on donations to statewide offices is higher, so contributors seeking a termed-out legislator’s good will can give up to $13,600.

Don’t want to take money from some questionable source? Easy. Politicians – almost all of them do this one – urge an oil company or a casino to funnel money to the charity of their choice.

The politician gets the good will of the charity and its supporters, but can keep a distance from a tainted donor. Even better, the donation can be unlimited in size. We could go on.

Rules are easily skirted and fundamentally absurd. In an FBI affidavit unsealed after Yee’s arrest last week, the feds accused him of trying to arrange illegal gun sales and of taking money from an undercover agent in exchange for introducing him to other state politicians.

On his 2013 conflict-of-interest statement, filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, Yee listed gifts including $300 tickets to mixed martial arts from the company that owns Ultimate Fighting Championship, but also a $25 box of popcorn from the Popcorn Man, a $5 bag of nuts from Western Growers, and a Coke and a straw valued at $1.89 from Coca-Cola Bottling.

There is room for more rules. Some might even have an impact, like restricting fundraising at the end of legislative sessions when lawmakers shuffle between casting votes on hundreds of bills and fundraisers. Another concept to consider is to require paid political fundraisers to register and undergo ethics training, similar to what lobbyists must do.

Yee, Calderon and Wright were elected multiple times, generally by wide margins. Ultimately, we voters must take some responsibility. One way would be to pay closer attention to the motives of the interests trying to win over our votes.

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