Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Calderon seems determined to drag Steinberg and others down with him

Having been flayed by a leaked FBI affidavit alleging that he rented his position for $88,000, state Sen. Ron Calderon is going out of his way to muddy up California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg.

Through his lawyer, Calderon claims that Steinberg was or is a target of the federal investigation in which the Montebello Democrat is embroiled.

It makes sense in the twisted world of politics. One of the time-tested tactics is to attack an opponent’s strength, although Calderon’s foe is not Steinberg, but rather himself and his appetites.

Steinberg is a politician, not a choirboy. He raises campaign money with the best of them and oversees a tough campaign operation. But having known my share of bent pols, Steinberg is not a crook, to borrow a phrase from one who was.

Steinberg has carried his share of silly bills. He has gone out of his way to help his labor patrons. But he also has done more than his share of serious work on behalf of people who most need it.

He won approval this year to restore dental care for poor people and has been the leading advocate of high school vocational education, securing $250million in this year’s budget for it.

Most significantly, he sponsored the 2004 initiative that generates $1billion a year in tax revenue to fund the mental health care system. Though its execution is flawed, the money has helped numerous people in need of mental health care.

Calderon got involved in important legislation to expand protections for homeowners facing foreclosure. For that he deserves praise.

But when he wasn’t at the trough at Chops or in Vegas, Maui, Pebble Beach or Bandon Dunes, he often could be found working on obscure legislation to help various interests and campaign contributors.

There was, for instance, a bill to permit the importation of kangaroo skin for use in tennis shoes, and one to authorize the sale of fireworks during the days leading up to New Year’s Eve on behalf of the fireworks industry.

Then there is the measure that got him into trouble with the feds – the film tax credit.

According to a previously sealed FBI affidavit, obtained and reported on by Al Jazeera America three weeks ago, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Los Angeles studio operator requested that Calderon alter the tax credit intended to help the California film industry.

As it is, the credit is reserved for films made in California with budgets of $1million or more. According to the affidavit, the phony film studio executive last year asked that Calderon help lower the amount to $500,000. Calderon countered that he might be able to win legislative approval for lowering it to $750,000. The FBI agent agreed.

Last summer, Calderon came to Sacramento and presented his idea to the lobby coalition that advocates for the film tax credit on behalf of studios, directors, producers and organized labor.

“Everybody was opposed. The studios, the unions. Everybody. We were totally opposed to it,” said Barry Broad, a lobbyist and lawyer who represents the Teamsters union and is part of the tax credit coalition.

There were at least three reasons for that opposition: First, the tax credit is intended to persuade producers to film in California, and there is no evidence that ultra-low budget productions are fleeing California. Second, ultra-low-budget productions don’t employ many workers, least of all Teamsters and other union workers.

Third, if the floor were lowered to $750,000, the likelihood would increase that the tax credit money would be siphoned off to produce pornography, hardly the sort of films California state government seeks to promote.

“Frankly, there was an industry concern about porn getting into the act,” Broad told me.

Broad recalled that Calderon’s stated reason for advocating for the $750,000 floor was “that more minorities could get involved in films.” He also mentioned to one or more of the lobbyists that his daughter aspired to get into the movie business.

As it turns out, the FBI affidavit says the undercover FBI agent-studio executive paid $3,000 a month purportedly to employ Calderon’s daughter, but gave her no work.

After they met with Calderon, some of the lobbyists caught up with Steinberg in the Capitol and explained their reasoning for opposing Calderon’s idea, including the concern that some of the money could be used for porn productions.

Steinberg readily agreed, and the idea of lowering the floor to $750,000 never materialized in legislation.

It probably would have been forgotten, except that it was central to the FBI’s 124-page affidavit filed this May to obtain the search warrant for Calderon’s legislative offices.

Last week, Steinberg moved to distance himself and the Senate from Calderon by stripping Calderon of his committee positions. Calderon reacted by using his attorney, Mark Geragos, to try to rough up Steinberg.

A regular on cable news outlets, Geragos is adept at attracting press attention for himself, his causes and his clients, who have included former Rep. Gary Condit, the late superstar Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, now a resident of death row for the murder of his wife, Laci, in Modesto in 2002.

Geragos filed a motion in federal court in Sacramento seeking to hold the U.S. Attorney’s Office in contempt over the leak of the supposedly sealed search warrant affidavit. In that motion, Geragos claimed the FBI asked Calderon to wear the wire to ensnare Steinberg and Sen. Kevin de León, the Democrat seen as most likely to succeed Steinberg as Senate leader.

“He decided he was going to believe the uncorroborated hearsay allegations in an illegally leaked affidavit, and he was going to violate the Constitution,” Geragos said of Steinberg. “That’s fine. We are not going to stand here and take that.”

Calderon has not had his day in court. But he surely knows his political career is over. He hopes to drag a few others down with him. It is pathetic and predictable, given the pen where he has wallowed.