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Money flows into legal defense funds for suspended California senators

The State Capitol in Sacramento
The State Capitol in Sacramento
Craig Miller/KQED
The State Capitol in Sacramento
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 31: California State senator Leland Yee leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building after a court appearance on March 31, 2014 in San Francisco, California. State Senator Leland Yee appeared in federal court today for a second time after being arrested along with 25 others by F.B.I. agents last week on political corruption and firearms trafficking charges. Yee is free on a $500,000 unsecured bond. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The State Capitol in Sacramento
State Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, speaks to the Senate Monday, Sept. 9, 2013.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
The State Capitol in Sacramento
FILE - In this Monday June 10, 2013, file photo State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, left, holds a brief news conference during first appearance at the Capitol since the FBI investigators raided his offices in Sacramento, Calif. Sen. Calderon was a no-show with an unexcused absence after at least a half-dozen FBI agents carted boxes from his Sacramento offices following a more than six-hour search in June 2013. Sen. Calderon did not answer any questions and no details have been given for the search and no charges have been filed. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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California has tight restrictions on the amount political candidates can collect for campaigns; but when it comes to legal defense funds, donors can be far more generous. 

The state senate voted last March to suspend three members who had been charged or convicted of felonies.  Now several corporations, political action committees and even a few politicians have stepped up to help pay the legal bills for senators Ron Calderon and Rod Wright. Senator Leland Yee also has a committee to collect legal defense donations. 

Under state law, none of these legal defense funds will be subject to limits, as long as the amounts are not unreasonably higher than the expected defense costs.

Wright is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday on charges of perjury and voting fraud charges stemming from living outside his district. His fund collected more than $150,000.  Most came from state-regulated industries -- energy, metals, telecommunications,  insurance, casinos and teachers.

Energy company PG&E was among the larger donors to the suspended senators' legal funds. The company gave $10,000 in installments to Wright's fund in August and December 2013. Wright had been indicted in 2010 and convicted in January 2014.

PG&E also gave a total of $7,500 to Calderon's legal fund in July and December of 2013. Calderon's legal defense fund collected just over $38,000.  He is accused of taking bribes.

Calderon's office was searched by the FBI in June 2013. An FBI affidavit outlining the case against Calderon surfaced in news reports in October, and the senator was indicted in February 2014. 

A political action committee called Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, whose third-largest donor is PG&E, gave Calderon's legal defense fund its first cash infusion of $5,000 in July 2013.

"Once suspended, we stopped all contributions," said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo in an email. Asked to explain how the company decides which politicians' defense funds deserve its donations, she said, "We have decided not to contribute to such funds in the future."

Yee, also accused of bribery, set up a legal defense fund, but has not yet filed papers revealing donors.

California Contribution Limits