After Indictments, 5 Lessons from Ron and Tom Calderon

Senator Ron Calderon.
Senator Ron Calderon. | Photo: CA State Senate

First of all, the story so far:

Brothers Ron and Tom Calderon were indicted on Friday. Former Assemblyman Tom Calderon appeared in federal court and entered a plea of not guilty to charges of conspiracy and money laundering. State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) was to appear in court today to answer allegations of bribery, money laundering, fraud, and aiding in the filing of false tax returns.

According to documents leaked to the news media in 2013, Tom, Ron, and their brother (and former state legislator) Charles Calderon were under investigation in 2007 by the FBI. Charles was not named in the indictments of his brothers issued Friday.

Ron Calderon is alleged to be implicated in a web of influence peddling and money laundering chiefly involving Dr. Michael Drobot, former chief executive of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. Dr. Drobot accepted a guilty plea on Friday for his part in fraudulently billing workers compensation insurers more than $500 million for surgeries performed at Pacific Hospital. He admitted to bribing Ron Calderon to sponsor legislation that would have prolonged the scheme. As part of a plea deal, Dr. Drobot is cooperating with the FBI.

In return for support for expanding motion picture tax credits in 2013, Ron Calderon is alleged to have taken money and gifts from FBI agents posing as independent film producers. Some of the money, the indictment asserts, was laundered through Tom Calderon's political consulting firm and Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit he controls.

Last year, the FBI collected evidence from the offices of the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Steelworkers Old Timers Association, a nonprofit founded by former Bell mayor George Cole. Tom Calderon was once the president of the Old Timers Association. He also was a consultant to the water district and served on the board of a contractor that received a district contract.

The FBI and federal prosecutors noted in their public statements on Friday that their investigations are continuing, with the potential to involve other state legislators, possibly based on conversations that Ron Calderon recorded while he wore an FBI "wire."

On Friday afternoon, the senate leadership (and others) called on Ron Calderon to resign his seat.


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Lessons learned so far:

Political dynasties can be tenacious. It's been 30 years since Charles Calderon first won elected office as a member of the Montebello school board and began boosting his brothers into political life. The Calderon brothers always made a point of hiring family to work in the family business. The resulting concentration of power sustained the Calderon brothers through previous ethics scrapes, until now.

Term limits are no cure. The Calderon brothers so successfully integrated their interests that they actually benefitted from the state's patchwork of term limits, moving from local offices to statewide ones and into lobbying and political consulting and back into local elections where a even few thousand dollars can buy the loyalty of a city council member or water board director.

Nevertheless, all dynasties fall. Arrogance -- but mostly greed -- puts a time limit on the application of the Calderons' kind of power. Ron and Tom Calderon's trials will likely close the family's political business, although it's unclear what will become of Charles Calderon (who recently filed to run for a Superior Court judgeship) and his son, Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier).

The fall of Ron and Tom Calderon is unimportant. Unless the FBI and federal prosecutors are able to detail the routes by which political money flows through the cities and independent districts of southeast Los Angeles County, the trials of Ron and Tom Calderon hardly matter. More importantly, the means and the motive for corruption remain startlingly clear in the unwatched politics of the county's little cities and obscure public agencies.

Indictments are not political reform. Law enforcement agencies find perpetrators, and prosecutors try them. Neither process provides a template for redefining the corruptible politics of the southeast county. Only southeast voters aware of their own interests can.

Realistically, will voters in the southeast county care? So far, they haven't learned that lesson.

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