Politics & Government

California state Sen. Ron Calderon accepted $88,000 in bribes, FBI affidavit alleges

State Sen. Ron Calderon accepted about $88,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a film studio owner and a Southern California hospital executive during a wide-ranging probe into his conduct as a legislator, according to a 124-page affidavit published online Wednesday by cable news network Al Jazeera America.

No charges have been filed against Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello. His attorney, Mark Geragos, did not return calls Wednesday.

The federal affidavit, filed as the FBI sought a search warrant for Calderon’s office, alleges that he worked with interest groups in a pay-to-play fashion, accepting money in exchange for promises to carry or amend legislation to their benefit.

It details an arrangement to funnel money for the Calderon family’s later use through a nonprofit organization run by his brother Tom Calderon. It describes an instance in which Calderon hired a female undercover agent as a staff member as a favor to another undercover agent despite her apparent lack of qualifications for the job. It says that as Calderon steered legislation, he asked those he thought would benefit to secure jobs for his children, Jessica and Zachary.

“One way you could be a real help to (my daughter) is, you got any work?” Calderon said to an undercover agent posing as the film studio owner during a June 2012 dinner in Pico Rivera, according to the affidavit.

“I told you, man, anything you can do, any help you could do for my kids is, is – you know that’s, that’s diamonds for me. That’s diamonds.”

The agent was asking Calderon to change California’s tax credit program for filmmakers so that smaller productions would qualify for the credit. Under a bill Calderon carried in 2009 and an extension passed in 2012, productions that cost at least $1 million and are shot in California can enter a lottery to get a tax break. The affidavit describes Calderon talking to the undercover agent about getting the threshold lowered to $750,000.

In August 2012, the agent told Calderon at a meeting that he had put Jessica Calderon on the payroll of his film studio to help the senator and that he hoped Calderon could help him in return by trying to alter the bill.

Calderon said he could be helpful, and reminded the agent that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg supported lowering the threshold.

“That is why it is all about relationships,” Calderon told the undercover agent, according to the affidavit.

“Just the fact that (Steinberg) is behind pushing lowering the threshold, is huge. It’s huge. And he did it because of our relationship. And, I helped him, he helped me.”

At a meeting in September, Calderon told the agent about purchasing two VIP tickets to a Giants baseball game for Steinberg the week before. He said he also gave two tickets to oil industry executives so they could meet Steinberg at the game and support his campaign.

A Steinberg spokesman said he was not yet prepared to respond to that section of the affidavit.

The affidavit also suggests that Calderon’s daughter didn’t work for her pay. On Oct. 24, 2012, at another meeting between the Calderon and the fake studio owner, Calderon asked the undercover agent if he could give Jessica a task, “just so that she had something to do.”

“The (agent) reminded (Calderon) that he did not hire Jessica Calderon to do work and had hired her for the tax credit legislation …” the document says. “Ronald Calderon asked the (agent) if she could just do something for the purpose of ‘legitimizing the whole thing.’ Ronald Calderon said he was feeling guilty and that just having her run something across town would be enough, just so something was on record.”

Eventually, Ron Calderon’s older brother Tom entered the picture. He is a former assemblyman who works as a consultant for businesses that lobby the Legislature. Ron Calderon said his brother’s presence was not essential but would smooth the tax credit bill’s movement through the Capitol, according to the affidavit.

They cut Tom Calderon in, according to the affidavit, bringing the agent’s monthly contribution to $10,000, including $2,000 to cover taxes, $3,000 for Jessica Calderon’s “job” and $5,000 for Tom Calderon’s consulting fees. Those were to be paid through the nonprofit he runs, called Californians for Diversity. Later, Ron Calderon and the agent discussed skirting suspicion by passing money into the Calderon Group, Tom Calderon’s consulting company.

After the undercover agent boasted to Ron Calderon about securing $50,000 a year from a three-picture deal, the two discussed what to do with the windfall.

“I mean, if there is something that you think that I can do to help you out with that fifty each year, you tell me. And, I will set it up,” the agent said, to which Ron Calderon, according to the affidavit, replied, “Right.”

Over time, Calderon drew down the $50,000 by asking for a $3,900 deposit into the Ron Calderon for Controller 2014 committee; a $25,000 infusion for his brother’s nonprofit, Californians for Diversity; and money to cover Calderon’s airfare to Miami, the affidavit states.

In discussing the nonprofit donation, it says, Calderon told the undercover agent: “And then, Tom and I, down the road, we build that up, we can pay ourselves. Just kind of make, you know, part of a living. So that’s something we’re probably going to do.”

Calderon allegedly asked for money to help pay for his son Zachary’s college tuition. At a subsequent restaurant meeting, the affidavit states, the agent produced a $5,000 check for Zachary’s tuition with the payee field left blank.

Calderon also agreed to hire the supposed girlfriend of one undercover agent – a woman who was an undercover agent herself – in exchange for Jessica securing work, the affidavit states.

The female agent “had no public service experience and her last three jobs were modeling, working for the (undercover agent’s) studio, and working at a fashion studio in New Orleans,” according to the affidavit. She got the job anyway.

“In return for the bribe payments, Ronald Calderon did, in fact, hire (the female agent) as an employee of the state of California,” the affidavit says.

The affidavit also relates how Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, brokered a deal with Calderon following a tiff within the Latino caucus over who would serve as its chairman. Ron Calderon had been in line to become caucus chairman in December of last year. But Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, had the position and wanted to hang on to it.

In exchange for Calderon backing away from the chairmanship and allowing Lara to keep it, the affidavit says Calderon told the undercover agent that de León told Calderon he would give him a paid appointment after he left the Senate and $25,000 in “seed money” from one of the caucus accounts to “hire consultants and do presentations.”

Campaign finance records show that a fundraising committee connected to the Latino caucus gave Californians for Diversity $25,000 on Jan. 2, a month after Lara was elected to remain chairman.

The affidavit also alleges Tom and Ron Calderon were involved in a bribery scheme with Michael Drobot, owner of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach, which specializes in spinal surgery for injured workers. The FBI said it believed Drobot was involved “in large-scale health care fraud,” including paying kickbacks to surgeons who performed spinal fusion surgeries.

The alleged arrangement was that Ron Calderon would limit or kill workers’ compensation legislation that would restrict profitable spinal surgeries at the hospital, and Drobot would pay him $28,000 in bribes, “disguised” as payments for a job to Ron Calderon’s son, Zachary. The affidavit also notes that Drobot paid Tom Calderon $10,000 a month as a consultant.

Drobot, through an attorney categorically, denied the allegations.

“Any allegation that Mr. Drobot engaged in wrongdoing is baseless,” Jeffrey H. Rutherford said.

The affidavit lists three bills the FBI alleges were influenced by Ron Calderon on behalf of Drobot. It said de León amended one bill at Calderon’s request so it would have less impact on Drobot’s business.

The FBI affidavit also alleges that Ron and Tom Calderon had a meeting with Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, and persuaded him to drop a second bill that “would have disrupted Drobot’s health care fraud scheme.” The Calderons’ brother Charles Calderon, then an assemblyman, made the August 2012 motion to have the bill sent to the inactive file, according to the affidavit.

A third bill, carried in 2012 by de León, allowed separate reimbursements for spinal devices to continue through 2013. The bill passed overwhelmingly, and Ron Calderon was one of the few lawmakers to oppose it. But he allegedly told the FBI undercover agent that he and Tom Calderon had been influential in getting language inserted that was more advantageous to Drobot.

Ultimately, Ron Calderon asked the undercover agent to make a political contribution to de Leon at a fundraiser, scheduled in conjunction with a prize fight in Las Vegas. According to the agent, Calderon made the suggestion because de León had complained that he had not been rewarded for dropping the implant legislation. “I don’t mind helping, but I haven’t seen any help,” Calderon quoted de León as saying, according to the affidavit.

“That’s false and the investigation will bear that out,” de León’s chief of staff Dan Reeves told The Sacramento Bee. He said the U.S. attorney has “made clear” that de León is not a target of the investigation.