By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
According to an article in the Associated Press the California Senate voted Friday to suspend three lawmakers caught up in separate criminal cases after the latest one to be hauled into court refused to step down, the most serious house-cleaning action the chamber has taken in more than a century.
Friday’s 28-1 vote in the 40-member chamber came amid one of the most severe ethical crises in modern times for the Legislature in the nation’s most populous state. Later in the day, Gov. Jerry Brown also called on the three lawmakers to resign.
The resolution prevents Democratic Senators Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, who face federal corruption charges, and Democratic Sen. Rod Wright, who is awaiting sentencing in a voter fraud case, from exercising any power of their office until the criminal cases against them have been resolved. Even so, they will continue receiving their $95,291 annual salaries. Senator Leland Yee was the subject of an article on the Jonathan Turley website HERE
The actions of the California Senate is laudable in many ways, but is this also a sign of a greater or endemic problem in the California legislature and formerly lax oversight of some unsavory dealings of legislators?
Yee was arrested and released on bond Wednesday following a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is accused of accepting more than $42,000 to provide introductions, influence legislation and for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker, according to an FBI affidavit that says Yee was also known as “Uncle Leland.”
Investigators said Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to help pay off campaign debts.
Wright was convicted of voter fraud and perjury and faces sentencing in May. Calderon faces federal charges for allegedly accepting $100,000 in bribes for friends and family in exchange for pushing certain bills.
Senator Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles defended the chamber’s reputation and noted that none of the bills Calderon pushed as a favor to those who were giving him cash passed the Senate.
Yee’s attorney, Paul F. DeMeester, issued a statement immediately after the Senate vote saying suspension was “the right step for now” because it acknowledges the presumption of innocence. Representatives for Calderon and Wright said they would have no immediate comment on the suspension vote.
Senate officials will go office-by-office to emphasize ethical conduct and to ask staffers to come forward if they are aware of any unethical or potentially criminal activity by lawmakers or Senate staffers.
Senator Joel Anderson argued that all three should be expelled outright and said it was wrong that they should continue receiving their salaries when facing such serious charges.
“If you reward bad behavior, you will get more of it,” Anderson said.
Calderon and Wright previously took leaves of absence, which also let them keep their pay. The California Constitution says lawmakers can lose their pay only if they are expelled or resign.
The vote comes just days after federal authorities arrested Yee as part of a broader corruption probe centered on San Francisco’s Chinatown district.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said he supports a proposed constitutional amendment, introduced by Steinberg on Friday, which would allow the Legislature to withhold members’ pay if they are suspended.
He said that shows that the legislative system actually worked.
“This is the best legislative institution in the country, hands down,” he said. “And we’re going to get past it.”
The only similar situation faced by the Legislature in recent memory is the so-called “Shrimpscam” investigation in 1985, in which federal agents went undercover and posed as representatives of a phony shrimp-processing company. Five lawmakers resigned and went to prison for taking bribes in the FBI sting operation.
The Senate last expelled lawmakers in 1905, when four senators were ousted for malfeasance involving bribery. Only one other senator has been expelled. In 1850 during the first legislative session after California gained statehood, a senator violated Senate rules by failing to show up for sessions for more than 10 days, according to Steinberg’s office.
The 80-member Assembly has never expelled a member and considered doing so only once, officials said. That was in 1899, when an expulsion vote failed Howard E. Wright, who represented Alameda County. Wright had been indicted on bribery charges but was not convicted
By Darren Smith
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