Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: Will allegations of bribery spur campaign finance reform?

Be honest: Do you even care about all the flapdoodle surrounding state Sen. Ron Calderon? Doesn’t seem like it.

Charges haven’t been filed, but the allegations are well reported. Calderon, the senator from Drobot, or Hollywood, depending on whose money you prefer, is accused of taking $88,000 in bribes from the tandem of medical entrepreneur Michael Drobot, accused of trying to nudge legislation in his favor, and an FBI agent posing – one might even say acting – as the owner of a Los Angeles film studio seeking greater tax breaks for the industry.

To paraphrase a real actor, Claude Rains: “I’m shocked, SHOCKED there’s corruption going on in the statehouse!”

And now, cornered and trapped, are we shocked that Calderon, that bundle of gaseous ambition cleverly packaged as a public servant, is pathetically playing the victim by claiming the FBI targeted him for refusing to participate in a “sting operation” aimed at fellow Democrats Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Kevin de León of Los Angeles?

Are we shocked that all who’ve been accused – whether by evidence or inference – deny any wrongdoing?

Maybe the better question is: Will it ever be bad enough for you to be so shocked that you’ll finally demand something be done about it? To paraphrase another iconic movie line, when will you be as “mad as hell” and refuse to take this anymore?

The odds seem to favor “Never,” which might explain why our elected officials don’t seem impelled to do the truly right thing. Yes, they’re in full condemnation mode, pulling Calderon from cushy committee assignments – perhaps the Capital doghouse office across the street awaits – but that’s all optics. Is there even half that zeal toward any sort of regulatory reform to address fundraising loopholes to which lawmakers advantage themselves?

“I wouldn’t even go quite as far as you have,” Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, told me. “It’s partial optics. Beating up on Calderon is a nice first step, but it’s instructive how little interest there seems to be within the Capitol in broader fixes to the system.”

Why bother? The current system is a cash register for lawmakers forever busy filling campaign coffers. Blatant bribery may be a near-extinct species, but the subtler influences of favor-seeking special interests that routinely corrupt decision-making are alive and well and practically impervious to regulatory reform because we don’t care.

And don’t buy the sanctimony. Any politician denying that a greased palm sways votes or legislative action is only insulting your intelligence. Calderon was at least candid enough to reveal his true motives in a statement blasting a fellow lawmaker who called for his resignation: “In politics, one expects politicians to act in their own interests.”

Excuse me, Mr. Calderon, but that isn’t the job description, and even if you’re found innocent of all accusations, that piggish attitude is reason enough for you to be sacked.

Possible legislative solutions include public financing of state campaigns, or eliminating slush funds, legal defense accounts or charitable kitties that special interests fill to solicit lawmaker favors.

Schnur would ban fundraising while the Legislature is in session, reasoning that writing a large check six months before a lawmaker casts an important vote hasn’t the same visceral and emotional impact as writing a check the week before that same vote.

Plus, he said, “This would give legislators back five or six hours a day to do the job they were elected to do,” meaning, serve us instead of themselves.

Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, and Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, have proposed bills that would allow state regulators to audit a campaign before an election and expand disclosure requirements for nonprofit corporations funding political causes in California. But all three measures stalled in the last legislative session.

Admittedly, no solution is perfect. “There aren’t any on-off switches; there are dimmer switches,” Schnur says. “You undertake these efforts understanding that you won’t eliminate corruption, but make it as difficult as possible.”

Yes, except lawmakers aren’t even talking about such undertakings. Again, why should they when voters can’t be bothered to pressure lawmakers into passing reforms? It’s funny when people complain how we’ve become so desensitized to the usual triad of pop-culture envelope pushing: sex, violence and drugs. Perhaps the same is true with corrupt politicians, though that should concern us far more than whatever idiot thing Miley Cyrus is wearing. Or isn’t.

The late Molly Ivins once remarked that Texans don’t expect much from their elected officials since politicians are mostly crooks, dorks and the comatose. She’s mostly right about that. Plenty of elected officials might be crooks and dorks, but the comatose? That’s us. I hear that’s the way the crooks like it.