Corruption Costs Dems Their Supermajority in Calif.

Corruption Costs Dems Their Supermajority in Calif.
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Two years ago, California Democrats celebrated victory in a decades-long struggle to win a supermajority in the Legislature, where a two-thirds majority is required for any tax increase. It was the latest chapter in a long descent into inconsequence by California Republicans, who hold no statewide offices and party registration of only 29.3 percent of the voters.

But corruption has achieved what the Republicans could not. The supermajority is now down the drain as three of the Golden State’s 27 Democratic state senators have within the past two months been convicted or indicted on charges ranging from bribery to gun-running.

All three were suspended last week as Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg (pictured) scrambled to quiet editorial clamor about a “culture of corruption” in Sacramento. The expulsions have encouraged previously somnolent Republicans. With their supermajority gone for this legislative session, Democrats are worried that they could lose it for good in the June primaries, where several races are considered too close to call.

The tipping point that impelled senators to vote 28-1 to suspend their colleagues came last week with the arrest of Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco on charges of conspiring to illegally deal firearms and wire fraud. He was arrested after a five-year FBI investigation that produced a 137-page affidavit and opened a window into the fantastic gangland of San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown.

The FBI also arrested on money-laundering and other charges a well-known gangland figure, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who had been honored by prominent politicians, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for supposedly going straight and becoming a “change agent” for good after serving a prison sentence for armed robbery.

Yee’s arrest stunned colleagues. He was a respected political figure in San Francisco, where he had run for mayor, and in Sacramento, where he’d played a leading role in trying to close loopholes in state laws banning assault weapons. He was seeking his party’s nomination for secretary of state, which has oversight of elections.

But the FBI affidavit portrays Yee as a would-be gun runner who also boasted that he could fix elections. The affidavit quotes him as telling an FBI agent posing as an arms dealer that he could obtain “mobile, light and powerful” weapons from Muslim rebels in the Philippines. Yee’s motive, according to the affidavit, was that he wanted money to retire a $70,000 campaign debt and finance his campaign for secretary of state.

“People want to get whatever they want to get,” the affidavit quotes Yee as telling the agent. “Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.”

Steinberg called Yee’s conduct “sordid” but resisted suggestions that the Senate expel him and Sen. Ronald S. Calderon of the Southern California city of Montebello, who was indicted a month earlier after a separate FBI sting. Calderon faces 24 felony counts that include accepting $100,000 in bribes and various junkets. He has pleaded not guilty.

Also in February, Sen. Roderick D. Wright of Inglewood was convicted of perjury for falsely stating that he lived in the district he represents, as required by California law. Wright has appealed the verdict.

Steinberg said that Yee and Calderon were entitled to a presumption of innocence and Wright to his appeal before being expelled. As a practical matter, Yee and Calderon will be out of the Senate anyway at the end of the year because of term limits—before their criminal cases are likely to be adjudicated. Wright would be able to seek re-election only if his appeal succeeds; a felony conviction requires automatic expulsion.

The rub in all this is that the suspended senators will continue to receive their $95,921 annual salaries since the California Constitution forbids suspending them without pay. Steinberg has promised to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow unpaid suspensions in future corruption cases.

California’s government has periodically been shaken by corruption scandals. A century ago, Progressive leader Hiram Johnson was elected governor, bringing in like-minded legislators with him, after an intense campaign against the Southern Pacific political machine that dominated state politics and was accused by the Progressives of serial corruption. Johnson broke the back of the machine and made the ballot initiative and referendum permanent features of the California political system.

In the 1930s and 1940s the Legislature was manipulated by master lobbyist Artie Samish, the self-styled “guy who got things done.” Samish contributed to his own downfall in 1949 by telling an investigative journalist that he was more powerful than California Gov. Earl Warren and unwisely allowing his photograph to be used in Collier’s Weekly with a ventriloquist dummy representing the Legislature. Samish fell from grace after two articles in the magazine called him “the secret boss of California.” In 1953 he was convicted of federal income tax invasion and served a prison term.

In the 1980s, an FBI sting sent five legislators of both parties to prison. They were convicted of bribery in getting legislation passed to set up a phony shrimp processing plant. Gov. George Deukmejian, tipped off by the FBI, vetoed the bill.

Before and after these scandals there were several instances in which corruption investigations came up empty. Richard Dolwig, a powerful Republican legislator from San Mateo in the 1960s and early1970s, survived a variety of investigations while in office only to be convicted of real estate fraud in Hawaii in 1975 and sent to prison after he left the state Senate.

As a former Sacramento journalist who wrote about legislative corruption and interviewed Samish after his release from prison, I have been struck by how quickly scandals fade into history without any attempt by anyone at institutional reform. “The legislatures are tribal by nature” says longtime Sacramento lobbyist George Steffes, who once served as Gov. Ronald Reagan’s legislative liaison. “To them, it’s the legislators against everyone else.”

Steffes advocates for an independent inspector general with a budget not controlled by the Legislature. This would require a ballot initiative, but Steffes believes that it would be embraced by voters, a majority of whom have a low opinion of the Legislature.

Writing this week in the Los Angeles Times, Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson, said that the pattern of corruption in Sacramento was deeply rooted and called for an investigation by an independent commission to which the governor and the legislative leadership of both parties would make appointments.

But substantive change in Sacramento is a long shot, says Richard Ehisen, editor of State Net Capitol Journal. He points out that Steinberg rejects the notion that there is a “culture of corruption” and says the current indictments reflect individual character weaknesses.

Retired journalist John Herbers, who covered the Mississippi Legislature before a distinguished career at The New York Times, once said that legislatures reveal every known vice and virtue “plus some that haven’t been discovered yet.” I would agree based on my observations of the California Legislature in the 1960s, when it was widely considered the best in the United States.

Even then, however, there were individual legislators who were willing to sell their votes for money or favors. As an institution, the Legislature did nothing to rid itself of its rotten apples. It’s high time, as both Steffes and Whalen say, for an outside body to conduct the oversight. 

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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