Dan Walters

Dan Walters: As scandals proliferate, Senate tries to polish image

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

This is the drill in the state Senate this year, a least so far:

A scandal of some type erupts and Senate leaders respond with some supposedly corrective changes in rules governing the political game.

So far, three senators have run afoul of criminal laws this year and have been suspended while their cases meander through state or federal courts.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg fired a sergeant-at-arms after learning, from a reporter, about court records indicating the aide had cocaine in his system before a shooting at his home that left a man dead.

Then the chief sergeant-at-arms, after 34 years on the job, abruptly resigned, apparently under duress for not telling Steinberg about his underling’s cocaine use.

Adding to the mix was a huge fine levied against one of the Capitol’s top lobbyists for illicitly hosting fundraising events for politicians at his home.

Senators have introduced a flock of bills to tighten up campaign-finance laws and otherwise, they say, improve the Capitol’s ethical ambiance.

Last week, Steinberg and his designated successor, Sen. Kevin de León, unveiled “a new raft of Senate rules to invigorate cultural change in the institution.”

The rules would bar campaign fundraising during the final four weeks of a legislative session, give protections to Senate staffers who blow the whistle on misconduct, and create an “ombudsman” to handle those complaints.

The rules appear to be more appearance – trying to polish up a tarnished institutional image – than substance.

The end-of-session fundraising blackout is a joke. It would simply shift delivery of campaign checks to periods when it was allowed.

Since legislative staffers have no civil-service status, they would be reluctant to trust any supposed whistleblower protections under their bosses’ control. Conversely, a disgruntled staffer could threaten a complaint that might ruin a boss’s political career.

Furthermore, they are only rules, not law, so enforcement would be left to a Senate that has a long history of highly selective, inconsistent ethics standards, and has often been willing to change or bypass any procedural rules that may interfere with the politics of the moment.

Finally, the rules apply only to the Senate, not the Assembly. Unless adopted by the other house, Assembly whistleblowers would not have whatever protections the Senate extends, and Assembly members would be free to raise money during a session’s last weeks.

Toni Atkins, who was sworn in Monday as the Assembly’s speaker, doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to emulate Steinberg.

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, Atkins endorsed reform in concept – saying, “we’ve had a few setbacks” – and wants “the citizens and voters of California (to) have faith in us” but said any reforms must go through “a process.”