California senator faces corruption charges in medical scam, FBI sting; brother also charged

The Associated Press

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, left, and FBI Assistant Director in Charge Bill Lewis speak at news conference Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Los Angeles. Federal law enforcement authorities on Friday announced multiple charges of bribery and cover-ups against state Sen. Ron Calderon, a Democratic state lawmaker and his brother, the result of a long-running corruption investigation that has tarnished the state's majority party. (AP Photo/ Nick Ut)

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By DON THOMPSON and MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California state senator was charged Friday with accepting $100,000 in bribes, lavish trips and no-show jobs for his children in exchange for pushing legislation to benefit a hospital engaged in billing fraud and participating in a film industry tax scheme that actually was an FBI sting.

The 24-count federal indictment against Sen. Ron Calderon, a Democrat from a politically prominent family in Los Angeles' blue-collar suburbs, depicts a rogue legislator eager to trade his clout at the state Capitol to enrich himself and his family. His brother Tom, a former state lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, was charged with money-laundering for funneling bribes through a tax-exempt group he controlled, prosecutors said.

"When public officials choose to callously betray the trust of the people they serve and selfishly abuse the privileges of public office, then we will take all necessary steps to hold those persons fully accountable for their behavior," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte said.

The charges come after a long-running corruption investigation that has tarnished the state's majority party — Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers in the Legislature. The charges also threaten the patriarchs of a family that rose to political prominence from the heavily Hispanic, working-class communities southeast of Los Angeles.

"Because they knew how to run elections and they knew how to speak to a newly incorporating group, Latinos, they knew how to get people elected," said political scientist Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. For any would-be candidate around their home base "you needed their support."

Ron Calderon has denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Mark Geragos, did not return repeated telephone messages but planned to issue a statement later Friday.

Tom Calderon's attorney, Shepard Kopp, said his client would fight the charges. Tom Calderon appeared in court in handcuffs on Friday and pleaded not guilty to seven counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to launder money. His bail was set at $25,000 and he was ordered to surrender his passport, stay in the continental U.S. and appear for a jury trial starting April 15.

"Every single action they describe my client as having taken was done with innocent intent and no knowledge that there was anything illegal about any of these acts," Kopp said in a telephone interview. "The indictment alleged that he knew that there were payments being made that were bribes or money that was being paid so that he would take some kind of legislative action. Nothing could be further from the truth."

If convicted on all counts, Ron Calderon could face nearly 400 years in federal prison. His brother, if convicted, could face a maximum penalty of 160 years in confinement, prosecutors said.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, speaking on behalf of the chamber's Democratic caucus, called on Calderon to resign or take a leave of absence.

"Given the seriousness of charges that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a public official, Senator Calderon's continued service is a cloud over all the important work that we must get done this year," Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement.

The indictment details a rampant pay-to-play culture in which Ron Calderon used his influence in the Legislature to extract money or other financial benefits from those who wanted favors.

Those bribes, prosecutors said, included trips to Las Vegas, flights on privately chartered planes and jobs for Ron Calderon's son and daughter in which they were paid but did little, if any, work. The film studio, an FBI ruse, hired his daughter for a $3,000-a-month job, and a Long Beach hospital executive involved in the medical scam hired his son for three summers at a rate of $10,000 per summer, the indictment said.