Politics & Government

Undercover FBI agent created elaborate persona in Calderon sting

The undercover agent who posed as a Los Angeles film studio owner during an FBI sting of state Sen. Ron Calderon established an elaborate persona as Rocky Patel, a man who had recently relocated from Las Vegas and enjoyed soccer, beer and hobnobbing with government officials.

The fake movie studio and its fake owner are at the heart of the FBI’s undercover sting, which became public this week when cable news network Al Jazeera America published a court-sealed affidavit used to seek permission for the agency’s June 4 raid on Calderon’s Capitol offices. The affidavit never names the agent, but activities it describes match with public records and social media activity attributed to Rocky Patel.

During frequent meetings with Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, the affidavit says the undercover agent offered bribes in exchange for Calderon’s efforts to make legislation granting tax credits to some movie productions more friendly to small film-makers.

The bribes were presented as a series of $3,000 payments to Calderon’s daughter Jessica, which were agreed upon through a phony employment agreement that the undercover agent signed on July 19, 2012, according to the affidavit. It describes Calderon and his son Zachary visiting the agent at his fake film studio that day:

“When the (agent) asked (Calderon) what amount he should write on Jessica Calderon’s first paycheck, Ronald Calderon said, ‘I think we said three, which would help me cover the tax and all the other liabilities.’ When the (agent) asked (Calderon) what date he should write on the employment agreement, Calderon said ... ‘Is it okay if we back-date this to July 1st ?’ as the date it was signed (presumably to justify full payment of the $3,000 for that month).”

The same day, a Twitter user named Rocky Patel, who described himself online as the owner of United Pacific Studios in downtown Los Angeles, posted a photo of himself arm-in-arm with Ron Calderon in front of his alleged business. It has the look of a strip mall storefront, adorned with a cheap vinyl sign that calls United Pacific Studios “the new wave in independent film.”

“Great having #CASenatorRonCalderon and his son Zach stop by the studio today,” says Patel’s tweet accompanying the photo.

Another part of the affidavit describes the agent leaving on a trip for Spain. Rocky Patel’s Twitter feed has several entries from a trip to Spain. It also “re-tweets” a message from Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who is Ron Calderon’s nephew.

The Twitter account was deleted Wednesday night, not long after The Sacramento Bee posted the tweet with the picture of Patel and Calderon on its Capitol Alert blog. The FBI issued a statement Thursday saying it is investigating the source of the leaked affidavit.

The banner on Patel’s Twitter page had a line of cigars as its backdrop. Rocky Patel is also the name of a cigar brand, though that appears to be unrelated to the undercover agent’s “Rocky Patel” persona.

Louis Reyes, a former Calderon staff member who now works as a political consultant in East Los Angeles, said he encountered the man who claimed to be Rocky Patel at numerous political functions over the past two years.

“He was pretty visible in the community, at least in the political network here,” Reyes said. “He professed himself to be someone who just moved in from Vegas and became a partner in a movie studio and was looking to create a network of individuals in the downtown L.A. area.”

Reyes said Patel talked about being a new American whose family was all in India, and came off as an outgoing young entrepreneur.

“When you go to Latino political events and 95 percent of the people are Latino, there’s always a question of, ‘What’s your background? Where are you from? Where have you lived?’ Many of us are native Angelenos so it was always like, ‘How did you end up in this crowd?’”

Reyes said he never suspected at the time that the man was anyone other than who he presented himself to be. But after reading the FBI’s affidavit, Reyes said he is sure Rocky Patel was one of the FBI’s undercover agents.

Campaign finance records show that a Rocky Patel who works in the film industry made $16,700 in political contributions over the last two years, including two contributions to Ron Calderon, one to his brother Tom Calderon who was running for Assembly last year, and two to the re-election account of Sen. Kevin de León.

The affidavit describes the undercover agent and Calderon talking about a series of campaign contributions that square up with those public records describe as coming from Rocky Patel:

• Public records show Patel gave $3,900 to Calderon’s campaign for controller on Jan. 23, 2013. The affidavit describes Calderon asking the undercover agent to contribute the same amount to his campaign to attend a Jan. 20 fundraiser at a Lady Gaga concert.

• Public records show Patel gave two contributions totaling $4,100 to de León on Dec. 28, 2012. The affidavit says Ron Calderon told the undercover agent on Dec. 5, 2012, that he “should make a $5,000 or $10,000 donation toward Senator de León’s Manny Pacquiao fundraiser in Las Vegas.”

A profile on the Yelp website carries a photo that looks like Rocky Patel’s Twitter photo, under the handle “Rocky ‘The Rock’ P.” The user reviews steakhouses and nightclubs in Las Vegas but also has a taste for tapas, veggie burgers and sashimi at venues around Los Angeles.

“Friends and I enjoy coming here after Tuesday night soccer for flatbread pizzas and a few rounds of beer,” he wrote about a BJ’s restaurant in Downey.

Patel’s picture also appears on another social media site, at lookedon.com.

The affidavit never mentions the name of the undercover agent’s fake film studio, but describes it as “a film studio in downtown Los Angeles providing studio facilities for independent films and commercials.”

It describes a Sept. 10, 2012 meeting between Calderon and the undercover agent, in which the agent asks Calderon to write a letter to his investor about his commitment to introducing legislation to help small film studios qualify for the tax credit.

“Calderon immediately agreed to write the letter but told the (agent) that he would need to direct the letter to a broader audience, like an association or a commission. (Calderon) told the (agent) it would be fine for them to make up an association or commission, so long as they were the ones to whom the letter was addressed,” the affidavit says.

The next morning, the affidavit says, the agent received an email from Calderon asking what he should call the phony film association in his letter.

“Can it be United Pacific Independent Producers of California? That will signal to (the undercover agent posing as an investor) that you are helping us on this project,” the agent replied.

Then there was the agent’s so-called girlfriend.

From early in his relationship with the ostensible film studio owner, Ron Calderon had offered to hire the man’s girlfriend – oblivious to the fact that she, too, was an undercover agent.

Eventually the studio owner took Calderon up on his offer, noting that his “girlfriend’s” modeling career had foundered. She came freighted with “issues,” the agent cautioned, but the affidavit says Calderon dismissed the warning, saying, “Every girl has issues.”

The hire went through despite concerns from an unnamed legislative staffer, referenced in the affidavit, about the girlfriend’s blatant lack of qualifications. Her pay was set at $3,618 a month, the maximum end of the pay scale for her job.

Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt said Thursday that different tiers of legislative aides require different levels of vetting. A district office assistant position like the one the agent was assigned to carries minimal oversight from Sacramento.

“For a clerical position in the district office we just sort of rely on the district office to tell us it’s OK,” Schmidt said. “The skill set you need to do that is pretty much a high school diploma.”

Even with that low bar, the girlfriend quickly proved her incompetence. She immediately sought bereavement leave and then failed to show up for work, Schmidt said. After that she lost interest, saying she no longer wanted the job, and was terminated. But she’d been paid $684.77 by the California state Senate.

“We started calling to get the money back because she’d never really worked there,” Schmidt said.

Eventually, the agent sent in a check to repay the $684.77.

In the affidavit, Calderon tells the agent about needing to persuade Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to authorize the hire. Steinberg’s office released a statement on Wednesday night saying Calderon’s request for extra staff in the district office was “a regular and commonplace occurrence” the statement says.

On Thursday, Steinberg released a statement saying “Senate personnel acted swiftly to demand and receive full reimbursement” after the fake employee lost her job.