Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Two cases represent different faces of the dark sides of political money

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The U.S. Supreme Court says money is speech. It has been especially foul-mouthed around here lately.

Sen. Ron Calderon, the Montebello Democrat who long has used campaign money to pay for his gluttonous lifestyle, now faces allegations of serious wrongdoing, based on the FBI search warrant affidavit that Al Jazeera America obtained last week and posted on its website.

The previous week, the California Fair Political Practices Commission poked at campaign organizations run by political operatives who spend millions on advertising, while cloaking themselves as nonprofit social welfare corporations and hiding the donors who fund them.

The cases are very different. But they represent different facets of dark sides of politics. One is legal, generally. A jury would have to decide whether the other one is or isn’t.

The case against the nonprofits grabbed attention nationally because the FPPC focused on the secretive network headed by brothers David and Charles Koch, the oil billionaires who help fund many of the most conservative campaigns and causes.

It involved vast sums, upward of $28 million. Of that, $15 million was spent on California campaigns, mostly in a failed attempt to help win passage of Proposition 32, the initiative on last November’s ballot that would have restricted labor’s ability to raise campaign money.

Sacramento operatives Tony Russo and Jeff Miller explicitly promised donors that they would protect them against the unpleasantness of public disclosure. To hide their identities, Miller and Russo used a nonprofit organization in Virginia, which used a nonprofit in Phoenix, which used nonprofits in Iowa and in Phoenix.

In the end, the FPPC and the attorney general concluded that the two Phoenix groups should have disclosed more fully their role in delivering the money to the California campaign committee working on Proposition 32. For that, they paid a combined $1 million penalty. The settlement also says the violation was “inadvertent or at worst negligent.”

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago concluded people can spend money to advance their arguments. It’s a First Amendment right, though nonprofits increasingly abuse the law by depriving the public of the right to know who funds the ads they see during campaign season.

Calderon is a piker by comparison, but his potential violations could have far more severe consequences. He supposedly took $88,000 in bribes, much of it from undercover FBI agents he thought were Los Angeles studio executives, according to the affidavit that an FBI agent wrote to get a warrant to search his Capitol office in June.

A portly man, Calderon spends heavily at Capitol-area restaurants and fancies himself a player, living large by using the money he raises from donors. Most of the donors have bills pending before his various committees. All that is legal. The affidavit describes episodes that are not.

Calderon, a grown man, felt a need to celebrate Halloween 2012 at the Bank, a high-end nightclub in Las Vegas, and asked the guy he thought was a studio executive to pay.

The agent treated the senator by shelling out $4,000 for the table to see the rapper Nelly. “And you’ve got a front-row seat on the action,” the agent is quoted as telling Calderon.

For a moment, Calderon apparently felt guilty that the agent wouldn’t be joining him and offered to back out. But Calderon got over it, reportedly telling the agent: “I had talked it up to some friends Saturday and now they are looking forward to it, so I sheepishly will take you up on your offer and take the table at the Bank.”

The next day, Calderon texted the agent photos of himself with rappers who performed, blunderingly violating the dictate that what happens in Vegas ought to stay in Vegas. My guess is that the texts would be evidence if Calderon ever goes to trial.

Calderon taints what he has touched, particularly other senators. The affidavit describes how Calderon boasted to the undercover agent that he could ingratiate himself with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg by giving Steinberg two $37.50 Giants tickets.

Steinberg told me he is disgusted by Calderon’s supposed actions, though he ought to do more than talk. Whether or not Calderon is indicted, Steinberg ought to try to remove the stain by launching an ethics committee investigation of Calderon, which could lead to his expulsion from the Senate.

Worst of all, Calderon slimed his kids. His son is a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Kids don’t get into Berklee because their daddies are politicians. They need talent. They also have to pay. Calderon extracted $5,000 for a tuition payment from the FBI agent, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit describes how Calderon got the undercover agent who posed as a studio executive to hire his daughter at $3,000 a month, while promising to work to pass a film tax credit that would benefit the faux studio.

“To put it in very blunt terms, me hiring Jessica was not about her talent, right?” the agent told Calderon. “It was more about accommodating something you needed. And you needed me to take helping your children”

“Right,” Calderon is quoted as saying.

In March of this year, Calderon combined family business with a junket, the affidavit and his campaign reports show. A second undercover agent, supposedly working with the phony film studio executive, wanted to meet Calderon on March 21 in Miami.

Ron and his brother Tom Calderon showed up, and the talk turned to hiring Tom as a consultant to push a film tax credit bill. The agent asked whether that was absolutely necessary. No, Ron said, but hiring his brother would help push the legislation through more quickly.

The following day, Ron headed off to Cuba, a trip paid for by his various donors, according to his campaign finance filing. The cost: $3,500 for four days, plus $2,487 for air fare on a Virgin America flight, and $169 for an upgrade.

Apparently upon his return, Ron and the agent met again in Miami. According to the affidavit, Calderon asked that the agent make a payment of $10,000 to a Calderon-controlled nonprofit, Californians for Diversity. As they headed to the airport, the agent gave Ron an envelope with $3,000 in cash, supposedly for Ron’s daughter.

Politicians have a First Amendment right to raise money to run their campaigns. They don’t have a right to take cash in exchange for carrying out their duties. Money may be speech. But lately, it hasn’t been speaking well of our democracy.