Politics & Government

Pressure rising against Ron Calderon

With pressure against him mounting, state Sen. Ron Calderon on Tuesday denied wrongdoing for the first time since an FBI affidavit alleging he accepted $88,000 in bribes became public last month.

His comments came as fellow lawmakers removed the Democrat from key legislative posts – including four policy committees and the board of the Latino Caucus – and civic leaders in his southeast Los Angeles district announced a press conference to ask for his resignation today.

“While I am defending myself against false allegations and illegal acts committed by a federal agency my commitment and resolve to continue providing the best legislative representation and the best services to my constituents remain firm. Removing me from my committee assignments sends a risky and unsuitable message regarding our fundamental constitutional rights and the Presumption of Innocence,” Calderon’s statement said.

“I have not been charged or convicted with any unjust doing, yet I am being treated by this committee and some media outlets as if I had. The appropriate action to take would be to allow me to continue the work I was elected to do and to allow me to remain on my committee assignments.”

The Senate’s Rules Committee voted unanimously to remove Calderon as chair of the Senate’s insurance committee, and remove him as a member of the banking, environmental quality and government organization committees. The committee also voted to disband a so-called “select committee” chaired by Calderon and focused on the film and television industries.

“Our job here is not to determine whether or not there have been any violations of criminal law,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who chairs the rules committee. “Our job is to uphold the code of ethics of the Senate and the standard of conduct expected of elected officials. It is in an attempt to strike that balance that I believe this decision is not only sound, but it is necessary.”

Democratic Sens. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Ricardo Lara, as well as Republican Bill Emmerson, joined Steinberg in casting the votes.

The move came two weeks after Al Jazeera America published an FBI affidavit alleging that Calderon accepted $60,000 in bribes from an undercover agent posing as a film studio owner who asked for Calderon’s help writing a bill that would give small movie productions a tax break. The affidavit also alleges that Calderon took $28,000 in bribes from a hospital executive who sought favorable treatment as the Legislature changed laws governing how much hospitals are paid for performing surgery on workers compensation patients.

The committee briefly discussed whether the Senate should open its own investigation into the allegations against Calderon. Bill Portanova, an attorney advising the Senate on the Calderon case, testified that federal prosecutors told him a legislative investigation could harm their case, which is still a work in progress.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office “requests that we hold off on our investigation especially at this sensitive time,” Portanova said.

Shortly after the hearing, Lara, who heads the Latino caucus, issued a statement saying he had removed Calderon from the caucus’s executive committee “in order to address all distractions that may impede our progress.”

The FBI affidavit reveals that leadership of the Latino caucus is an area of interest to federal investigators, and The Bee reported Sunday on the huge influence the growing caucus has inside the Capitol, controlling vast sums of campaign cash and wielding its clout to pass and kill significant bills.

The affidavit alleges that late last year, as Lara and Calderon vied for the caucus chairmanship, Sen. Kevin de León helped broker a deal in which Lara would maintain the chairmanship and the caucus would use campaign funds to pay Calderon $25,000.

Campaign finance reports show that about a month after the caucus voted to keep Lara as chairman, one of its political action committees made a $25,000 contribution to an organization run by Calderon’s brother, Tom Calderon.

“Unfortunately, recent allegations against one of our Caucus members, Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), threaten to overshadow our accomplishments and undermine the integrity of the Caucus as a whole. We take these grave allegations seriously. While we make no judgment as to the veracity, we have a duty to protect the integrity of a distinguished Caucus,” Lara’s statement said.

He said Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, is taking Calderon’s place on the executive committee, and commended his caucus for a “banner year” in pushing legislation to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and expand access to health care for the uninsured.

Lara, who until Tuesday had remained silent about caucus activities or the FBI probe, said he has “worked hard to make the Caucus, its policies and finances as transparent and open as possible. “I do not take lightly the public trust that comes with elective office and I do not condone nor would ever engage in any activity that puts that trust in question.”

Lara’s hometown of Bell Gardens will be the host today for a press conference calling for Calderon to resign. Another member of the Latino caucus – Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia – announced Tuesday that at least eight civic leaders from southeast Los Angeles communities will ask him to resign today at the Bell Gardens City Hall.

Garcia, who beat Tom Calderon in her race for the Assembly last year, has been the only legislator calling for Ron Calderon to resign since the FBI affidavit became public. Today she says she’ll be joined by the mayors of Montebello, Norwalk, Downey and Pico Rivera, as well as city council members from Bell, Commerce and Downey.

“This is an opportunity for the local elected leaders to voice their concerns about Senator Calderon’s ability to represent his constituents and fulfill the duties of his office,” Garcia’s statement said.

Calderon on Friday called Garcia’s requests for him to resign “outrageous” and said she had “trample(d) on the Constitution by making a mockery of the presumption of innocence, a fundamental right.”