Illegal or Immoral? FBI's Look into Legislator Shines Light on Possible Loopholes

Sen. Ron CalderonState Senator Ron Calderon (D - Montebello) has apparently found himself the target of an FBI investigation. In a rare move earlier this month, the federal agency searched his offices pursuant to a sealed search warrant.

Much has been written about Calderon in the week since the search, a good deal of it focused on dealings involving him and his brother, Tom Calderon, a former state assemblyman turned high-priced lobbyist. But in another twist in this ongoing tale, we are now hearing about another Calderon brother, who also happens to be a former state legislator.

It has now been reported that Sen. Calderon and his brother Charles Calderon used campaign funds to pay for their "holiday gifts." According to disclosure reports in 2009 Sen. Calderon used campaign funds to give Charles a $182.70 pair of shoes, and a few days later Charles Calderon used campaign funds to give Ron Calderon a $400 "holiday gift card." The next year, in 2010, Charles Calderon's campaign account gave Ron Calderon a $420 "holiday gift." Why $420? Well, in 2010, that was the limit on gifts to lawmakers.

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The only reason we know about the "holiday gifts" exchanged between the family members is that they used campaign funds for these gifts. Under those circumstances, their spending must be disclosed.

The brothers contended that the gifts improved legislative relations between them. It appears that this is all perfectly legal, as is much of Sen. Calderon's activities. For instance, years ago he apologized after inviting hundreds of lobbyists to a fundraiser for the "banking and finance" sector. The reception was held after he was named chairman of the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee and cost $3,200 per couple. While seemingly distasteful, it does not appear the fundraiser was illegal.

Sen. Calderon also gained some attention recently when he sought upgrades costing approximately $500 to his state-provided car prior to buying that car for personal use.

Does this mean that we should insist on tighter rules regulating gift giving, fundraising, and other activities? Well, no doubt, many of these laws deserve a hard look and the state's watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, has already been doing a wonderful job of doing just that. All of these laws must balance the need to ensure that public officials serve the public, and not themselves, all while not having them work under an overly burdensome, complex, or even confusing regulatory framework. We should not regulate our officials into oblivion or assume that they will always push regulations to the extreme.

But let me be clear, I do not think that regulations are futile. It sometimes feels that with every regulation another loophole will arise and be exploited. But regulatory work is, as I said, a delicate balancing act. And too often regulators are working against the greedy aspects of human nature.

It appears that Calderon used the benefits of public office to his advantage in a fashion that many find somewhere between distasteful and immoral. But not all of his actions are illegal. It in fact remains to be seen whether any are.

Calderon will be termed out in 2014. He is now raising money for possible runs for Assembly or state controller. If you do not like his behavior, a quick way of sending a message to Calderon and others who may share his philosophy is not to vote for him. There is no regulation that can make up for apathetic voters who fail to voice their opinion at the ballot box.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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