It Would Be a Mistake to Indict Senator Calderon for Bribery

It was shrimp 25 years ago. The FBI had set up a phony seafood business in the mid-1980s that eventually netted state legislators, staff members, and lobbyists in a bribery sting. Today, it's an FBI front company offering money for film production concessions. So far -- and only in the form of a leaked affidavit -- the only star of this latest FBI sting is Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).

Calderon isn't happy about being in the spotlight. He's protested that the leak was a crude attempt by prosecutors to force him into a plea deal. He lashed out at Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) who called on him to resign. And he's claimed that other legislators -- notably Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senator Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) -- were the FBI's real targets.

(Some evidence suggests that Calderon may have been sought as an informant against other state legislators, an offer he says he refused.)

Calderon is busily pointing fingers, but at least one of his complaints -- being smeared by a leak -- led U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley on Thursday to order prosecutors to respond.

Calderon has denied the allegations of bribery in the FBI affidavit. He's not been charged with any crime. But he has been stripped of his senate committee appointments by Steinberg, been taken off the state film commission, and bounced from the legislature's Latino caucus.

Eventually, we'll know what case -- if any -- the federal prosecutor intends to make. But it will be a mistake -- and a tragic loss -- if the case goes no further than an indictment for bribery. The politics around Calderon and his extended family that have festered for decades in the cities of the southeast county ought to be the focus.

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The Calderons have already been linked through an earlier FBI investigation to a pattern of suspect practices by the Central Basin Municipal Water District board. Subpoenas were issued in 2012 for the personnel records of former district director Art Aguilar and board members Art Chacon and Robert Apodaca. CBMWD contractors were ordered to turn over files relating to their work for the district.

The implication is that contracts with the CBMWD may have been brokered with a compliant district board, with some of the money channeled to the political campaigns of Calderon family members or to retaliatory campaigns against the Calderons' political opponents in Maywood, Signal Hill, and other southeast cities.

The connecting link is Ron Calderon's older brother Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman who once held Ron's Montebello seat. Termed out of office, Tom now heads a political consulting firm that serviced the water district. And according to the leaked FBI affidavit, Tom Calderon controls Californians for Diversity, a shadowy non-profit with ties to the Latino Caucus that Ron Calderon had sought to lead.

The web of Calderon family influence extends well beyond Sacramento. The FBI, according to news reports, also questioned a former Bell city council member and two council members from Commerce about the Calderons' political activities. Mario Beltran, a former Bell Gardens city council member convicted of campaign financing irregularities, is Ron Calderon's Sacramento spokesman and still involved in organizations with ties to southeast county politics.

Suspicion also has been raised about the hiring of Gil Cedillo Jr., the son of ex-state legislator and now L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo. Cedillo Jr. worked for both Ron and Tom Calderon before being hired as the Central Basin's business development manager.

The jobs of other members of the Calderon circle may have been used as conduits for laundering contributions to the family's political campaigns.

The Calderons also have ties to Michael Drobot, the former chief executive officer of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach. The leaked affidavit claims Drobot paid Calderon $28,000 to sponsor legislation that would benefit the hospital and may have delivered much more through Tom Calderon's lobbying firm. Drobot has been helpful in other ways, according to campaign finance records. Drobot and hospital employees contributed at least $159,625 to Calderon family political campaigns since 2001.

Bribery is bad enough, if federal prosecutors have the facts that can convince a jury. What's worse are the political ties that still bind city councils, elected boards, and community organizations to the Calderon family's ambitions.

Unless the FBI investigation details those ties and names the routes by which tainted political money flows through the system, making Ron Calderon the sole star of Filmscam won't mean very much at all.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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