Robert Owen Bernstein, a career state worker from Sacramento, believes honesty is paramount to government service.
Bernstein said he shuddered as he watched three state senators suspended with pay last year after separate high-profile criminal cases. To top it off, others before their terms in office expired fled elected posts for lucrative positions in powerful industries with business before the Legislature.
Bernstein’s admittedly speculative solution to much of what he believes ails the statehouse is a proposed constitutional amendment that, among other things, requires legislative candidates to complete lie detector tests certifying they’ve lived in their districts for the last year. They also must continue living in their districts throughout their terms in office.
The provision is inspired by the case of ex-Sen. Rod Wright, D-Baldwin Hills, who continued to serve for months after his conviction for voter fraud and perjury after lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008. He eventually resigned but spent just 71 minutes of the 90 days he was sentenced.
The proposed measure would require immediate, unpaid suspensions for lawmakers indicted for a felony and allow the state’s political ethics watchdog to recommend to the state Supreme Court removal from office any legislator “who may have committed a felony or not upheld their oath of office.”
Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco were indicted on unrelated federal corruption cases in 2014. They were suspended, but continued to receive their $90,000 annual salaries until their terms in office expired at the end of the year.
“It just seems like they think they are above the law,” Bernstein said by phone Wednesday. “And I think the (state) Constitution needs to be changed to make them think they are not above the law; that they have no God given rights to be in the Legislature.
“They are public servants,” he added. “They are supposed to be serving the people and not the special interests.”
He also wants lawmakers to stop “hiding” behind committee chairs who he says routinely rely on procedural rules to shelve controversial or hostile legislation.
The measure says lawmakers can’t adjourn and return home for the year until at least 10 days after they have haven taken at least one vote on every bill introduced in their respective houses.
“It’s just so it’s on the record how they actually feel about it – and they can’t hide that from the public,” he said.
To slow the revolving door, which currently allows former lawmakers to lobby their ex-colleagues after just one year, Bernstein wants elected officials beginning in 2018 to be barred from such activity for a dozen years after leaving office.
Bernstein said he’s spent 35 years in state government and now works part-time ferreting out fraudulent Medi-Cal claims. He isn’t sugarcoating his own chances of raising the millions of dollars needed to qualify for next fall’s ballot.
He said he’s thinking about crowdfunding, but acknowledges that it could be problematic because the state requires that names, addresses and other donor information be collected and logged on financial forms.
Still, the self-described “mad citizen” said he remains hopeful. He was neighbors in Carmichael with the late Paul Gann, co-author of the 1978 property tax limitation measure Proposition 13 – “one of the most famous initiatives in California,” Bernstein said.
“I figured if my next door neighbor could do it then I might as well give it a whirl, too.”