SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — An ongoing federal investigation of a California senator is roiling the Democratic leadership in Sacramento and threatens to complicate relations in the majority party when lawmakers reconvene in January.
FBI agents raided the offices of Sen. Ron Calderon in June, but the drama escalated within the past month when the Los Angeles-area lawmaker tried to tar his fellow Democrats after they stripped him of his committee assignments and one called for his resignation.
Calderon has denied allegations he took money in return for promoting bills, but some analysts say the inquiry could affect the re-election chances for incumbent Democrats next year.
Calderon has not been charged in the federal investigation. In documents filed last month in federal court, he said the raid of his offices came after he refused FBI requests to wear a recording device and act as an informant against Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, both fellow Democrats.
“He’s made a threat that ‘politicians live in glass houses,’ and he’s trying to throw his colleagues under the bus. Who knows what lies ahead?” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento. “What does he know about other members that at a minimum could serve as an embarrassment to them?”
De Leon, a top candidate to succeed Steinberg as Senate leader, produced a letter from federal prosecutors saying he is considered a potential witness and is not a target of the investigation at this time. Steinberg said through a spokesman that he has a similar letter but declined to release it. Steinberg and de Leon declined to comment for this story, although Steinberg earlier said he thinks the political fallout will be limited.
“I’m going to do everything I can to differentiate the alleged conduct of one member from the rest of the Senate,” he said.
Calderon’s court filing came in response to the leak of an FBI affidavit that alleges he accepted $28,000 from a Long Beach hospital executive to promote legislation that would have benefited the hospital. The affidavit, obtained by Al Jazeera America, also claims the Montebello Democrat took $60,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as the owner of a Los Angeles movie company in return for the senator’s efforts to expand tax credits for the film industry. Both legislative efforts failed.
What happens next depends largely on federal prosecutors, who are not commenting beyond saying that an investigation is underway into the leak of a sealed affidavit.
Analysts say the investigation of a single state lawmaker might not resonate with voters now, but could taint incumbents running for re-election if the fallout continues into next year.
“The harder Calderon fights to save himself, the less likely it is that this goes away anytime soon,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican media consultant who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
He said the investigation could promote reform.
Schnur, a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, has proposed banning lawmakers’ fundraising while the Legislature is in session and has been negotiating with Steinberg over ways to limit the practice.
Steinberg is considering a narrower limit on raising money during the busy period when lawmakers are giving final consideration to bills. Schnur expects an announcement by mid-January on what direction the effort will take.
“I’ve noticed a much greater level of interest on their part since the Calderon news first broke,” Schnur said of his conversations with leaders of both parties. “Beating up Calderon may be the first step, but they’re much more likely to win back the confidence of voters by demonstrating that they’re cleaning up the system.”
Republican politicians have been wise to remain silent until they see how the investigation develops and because corruption allegations have the potential to taint politicians of both parties, said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston. But he said Democrats have the most to lose.
The party already will be challenged next year in maintaining its supermajority status in the Assembly and Senate, which gives it the power to raise taxes, pass emergency legislation, override gubernatorial vetoes and put constitutional amendments before voters without Republican support.
“If there’s the pall of deceit or illegality here, that could further add to their woes,” Gerston said. “The bottom line could very well be the loss of that precious supermajority.”
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, is the sole lawmaker to call for Calderon to resign, prompting a heated exchange of news releases between the two Democrats.
Regardless of whether Calderon broke the law, Garcia said the allegations against him add to voters’ distrust and poor opinion of politicians.
“I think these types of scandals definitely hurt us with the public,” she said in a telephone interview. “It makes winning elections that much harder, that much more volatile.”
Calderon released a statement criticizing Garcia for reacting before the facts are known, saying “what has happened to me could happen to anyone in public office.”
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