Politics & Government

Dan Walters: California’s San Gabriel Valley polluted with sleaze

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The San Gabriel Valley – southeastern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County – has long struggled with severe water pollution from decades of industrial chemical dumping.

One wonders, therefore, whether there’s something in its water that makes it a breeding ground for political sleaze.

More likely, it is because the region has undergone generations of socioeconomic upheaval, creating an impermanent cultural mélange that is easily exploited by political sharpies.

Whatever the reason, the San Gabriel Valley has produced a succession of ethically challenged figures. Richard Nixon got his start in the region, for one, and when the FBI staged an elaborate undercover sting operation to root out pay-for-play corruption in the Capitol a quarter-century ago, several of those ensnared were San Gabriel Valley politicians.

One was Joseph Montoya, a state senator who was videotaped soliciting bribes from FBI agents posing as southern businessmen seeking special legislation for a fictional shrimp processing company.

“Shrimpgate,” as the case was known, sent Montoya and 13 other politicians, Capitol staffers and lobbyists to federal prison and persuaded voters to pass legislative term limits.

However, the Calderon family found a way around term limits – rotating legislative seats among three brothers and their progeny – and became a San Gabriel Valley political dynasty.

When Charles Calderon was forced out of the Assembly by term limits last year, for example, his 27-year-old son, Ian, took over his seat. Meanwhile, Ron Calderon, Charles’ brother, sits in the state Senate, holding a seat that Charles once filled.

However, Ron Calderon now finds himself in a pickle. An FBI affidavit declares that Calderon solicited bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a favor-seeking movie producer.

The similarity of the Calderon investigation to the one that snared Montoya is striking, proving that the FBI still gets the Capitol’s fundamental milieu.

Legislators introduce thousands of bills each year, and each bill usually undergoes multiple amendments. Often, entirely new bills are slipped into legislative shells in a process called “gut-and-amend.”

Lawmakers typically pay little attention to the content of those bills when they vote – particularly to seemingly minor changes of law.

Unless someone outside the Capitol – an adversely affected interest group, for instance – raises a stink about a bill, it generally floats through the process and onto the governor’s desk. But even seemingly minor bills can have heavy economic stakes for their sponsors, such as carving out a special tax treatment, which was what the FBI agent/movie producer was seeking from Calderon.

Pay-to-play may not be as widespread as it was in the go-go 1980s, but neither has it disappeared.