Embattled state legislator one of many to accept big gifts in 2013

On Oct. 23 of last year, exactly one week to the day the federal corruption case against him would be revealed to the world in detail, Ron Calderon was sent a letter that politely asked him to cough up some cash.

"Below is information regarding the expenses...incurred on your behalf," says the letter sent to state Sen. Calderon, D-Montebello, by the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies (ACLHIC).

The letter outlined $2,768.83 in lodging, golf fees, and even a movie in his room paid by the insurance trade group during Calderon's participation in a September conference in Newport Beach. But under state laws limiting gifts to legislators, Calderon's tab was too big.

"Please send ACLHIC a reimbursement check for $660.30 no later than October 25, 2013," concluded the letter. They were giving the legislator, whose Capitol office had been raided by the FBI the summer before, just two days to send in the cash.

The anecdote is contained in Calderon's annual filing (PDF) of the state form requiring financial and gift disclosures from the year before, one of hundreds filed by legislators and statewide constitutional officers.

Calderon, who late last month was indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges, did not take the most gifts of any elected official in 2013. But the veteran Democrat has a long track record of welcoming gifts ranging from meals to sporting event tickets and beyond.

A News10 analysis of Calderon's gift reports since 2004, a time period spanning both his time in the Assembly and Senate, finds interest group and political VIP gift and travel payments totaling $73,219 -- with the peak in 2010 and 2011, as the Los Angeles County legislator presided over the Senate's insurance committee.

Calderon, through a state staff spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

But the senator's method of paying off the debt outlined in that October letter from an insurance group also points to one of the liberal constructions of state law.

Two days after the letter, state records show, Calderon paid his debt to the insurance group using funds ostensibly raised for him to run for state controller in 2014.

In a twist of political irony, the group that Calderon reimbursed with campaign cash had given his same political action committee $1,000 five months earlier. Yes, perhaps one could argue, they were paid with their own money.

(By the way, that same committee reported a $3,900 donation from a man who records identify as Rocky Patel... but who was, in fact, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Hollywood movie executive angling for a state tax credit benefit.)

Most legislators take some amount of gifts from interest groups and friends or colleagues. State rules limit gifts from a "single source" to $440 in a calendar year. That appears to not include travel and other expenses paid for some conferences and other events -- which is why, in the Calderon example of the insurance group, his total tab could be so much higher than $440. The rules are, in truth, complex; the state Fair Political Practices Commission's guideline on gifts (PDF) runs almost a full 14 pages.

Last month, state Senate leaders created a 'working group' to consider changes to ethics rules governing senators. One of the bills introduced so far addresses gift giving rules, but it's unclear how much change will be made to the existing system. The bill's author, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, was unable to be reached for comment.

Only a handful of legislators reported little to no gift activity in 2013 -- that small group included, perhaps not surprisingly, the chair of the Senate's ethics committee (PDF), Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside.


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