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Calderon, Wright Scandals Prompt Ethics Bills From Senate Democrats

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Stung by criminal charges against two colleagues, the leader of the state Senate and other Democratic lawmakers on Thursday proposed tightening rules on lawmakers and lobbyists.

Their legislative package would prohibit legislators and their employees from accepting most entertainment-related gifts, such as tickets to sporting events and concerts. Golf outings, spa treatments and tickets to amusement and theme parks also would be banned. Similar bills sought by Republican lawmakers have failed repeatedly in the past.

The three-bill package also would trim the $440 annual cap on gifts to state officials to $200. Candidates would have to report campaign spending and expenses every three months, instead of twice a year.

They could not accept gifts from lobbyists or hold political fundraisers in lobbyists’ homes. That provision addresses recent campaign-finance violations involving a prominent capital lobbyist and numerous lawmakers.

The proposed California Accountability in Public Service Act comes after one Democratic senator, Sen. Roderick Wright, was convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County and another, Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello, was indicted on federal corruption charges alleging he took bribes while in office.

“The good legislative work we produce is only as strong as the public’s perception and trust in their Legislature,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

The package would address “the most critical issues” in reforming the 40-year-old California Political Reform Act, he said.

Steinberg announced the proposal along with Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who is in line to become Senate leader next year, and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who is chairman of the Latino Caucus. Senate bills 1441, 1442 and 1443 will be amended to carry the legislation.

“There’s no question that recent events are testing the public’s faith in how our government does its work,” Lara said. “We need to restore the public trust.”

Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said in a statement that the bills “are some of the most significant reforms to ethics laws in 20 years.” Lawmakers said they worked with the commission on their package, which also has support from the government reform group California Forward.

De Leon said the list of prohibited events includes “the most egregious, indefensible” gifts, such as golf outings and spa treatments. But he and the others defended going on educational trips around the world and attending dinners paid for by special interests as a valuable part of their jobs.

“Rubber chicken, to me, is not a gift,” joked de Leon about the meals politicians are expected to routinely attend.

Lawmakers said Thursday’s proposals dovetail with several other bills, including AB831 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, which would cap travel-related gifts to $5,000 a year while addressing several other issues that arose in recent investigations. A bill package by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would prohibit lawmakers from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions for 100 days before the end of legislative sessions and for a week after sessions end.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said the proposals should have been developed by the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Committee instead of a temporary working group formed by Steinberg and led by Lara.

“It’s kind of interesting that the people leading the charge … were perhaps highlighted in other investigations earlier in the year,” Huff said.

All three of the Democrats promoting the bills during Thursday’s Capitol news conference have been mentioned in the Calderon investigation, even though none has been accused of wrongdoing.

Steinberg and de Leon were mentioned by reference in the indictment and by name in an FBI search warrant affidavit, although both were told by prosecutors they were not targets of the investigation. The affidavit linked Lara to a political campaign fund that transferred $25,000 to a nonprofit committee run by Ron Calderon’s co-defendant and brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.

“That is ridiculous,” Steinberg said of Huff’s comment, while de Leon dismissed it as “political gamesmanship.”

“The corruption issues involve one member,” Steinberg said. “That’s the end of the story.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats derailed, for the second time in a week, a Republican effort to expel Wright from the Senate. He and Calderon have taken voluntary leaves of absence, but several Republicans want Wright expelled or suspended as he contests his conviction.

Their motion last week was sidetracked to the Senate Rules Committee, and Steinberg said he intends to hold it there indefinitely. An oral motion Thursday on the floor of the Senate by Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, was ruled out of order because it is similar to the written motion already in committee.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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