California lawmakers remove embattled state Sen. Calderon from committees (updated)

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A key legislative body voted Tuesday to strip state Sen. Ron Calderon of his committee assignments amid a federal investigation involving allegations he accepted money in return for promoting certain bills.

Soon after, the Latino Legislative Caucus removed Calderon from its executive committee, and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) announced a Wednesday morning press conference at which several Southeast L.A. elected officials will call for Calderon to resign. 

The Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously to remove the Los Angeles-area Democrat from all committees and commissions. It's believed to be the first time the committee has taken such action against a senator. No charges have been filed against Calderon, who denies wrongdoing.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the committee was making no judgments about Calderon's alleged conduct and that the actions were temporary, pending the outcome of the FBI investigation.

Rather, he said lawmakers were acting in the interest of the institution.

"Our job here is not to determine whether or not there has been any violation of criminal law," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "Our job is to uphold the standard of conduct of the Senate."

“There’s a difference between a criminal process – and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in that proceeding – and the standard of conduct of the California Senate by a senator,” Steinberg said during the Rules Committee hearing Tuesday at the state Capitol, Capital Public Radio reports.

Tuesday's actions come after Al Jazeera America reported that it had obtained a sealed FBI affidavit alleging Calderon accepted $88,000 in return for promoting bills.

In the affidavit, Calderon is quoted as telling an FBI undercover agent: "I am in so tight with [Steinberg]...He will do whatever I want."

Calderon issued a statement shortly after the vote saying he was "profoundly disappointed" in the action by the Rules Committee. His statement referenced the apparent leak of the affidavit, which remains under seal in federal court in Sacramento.

The FBI has said it is investigating the leak.

"While I am defending myself against false allegations and illegal acts committed by a federal agency, my commitment and resolve to continue providing the best legislative representation and the best services to my constituents remain firm. Removing me from my committee assignments sends a risky and unsuitable message regarding our fundamental constitutional rights and the Presumption of Innocence," Calderon wrote in the statement, his most extensive comments to date on the matter.

"I have not been charged or convicted with any unjust doing, yet I am being treated by this committee and some media outlets as if I had."

Meanwhile, a Sacramento criminal defense attorney retained by the Office of the Legislative Counsel says the U.S. Justice Department attorney leading the FBI investigation has asked the Senate to delay its own investigation of Calderon, Capital Public Radio reports.  “Any evidence gathering or witness interviewing, or anything along those lines – in his opinion – could potentially hinder the investigation at this stage,” attorney Bill Portanova told the Rules Committee Tuesday, according to Capital Public Radio.

Tuesday's 4-0 votes removed Calderon from the Senate Insurance Committee, which he chaired, and four other committees.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, chairman of the state Latino Legislative Caucus, announced Tuesday that Calderon has been removed from the group's executive board. Lara issued a statement trumpeting the caucus's successes this year but saying the allegations against Calderon "threaten to overshadow our accomplishments and undermine the integrity of the Caucus as a whole."

Lara appointed state Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) to serve in Calderon's place.

Lara's statement says the caucus takes the allegations seriously, though makes "no judgment as to the veracity."

In the statement, Lara says that he's worked to make the Caucus, its policies and its finances transparent.

"It should go without saying but I do not take lightly the public trust that comes with elective office and I do not condone nor would ever engage in any activity that puts that trust in question," Lara wrote.

The Rules Committee also voted to terminate the Senate Select Committee on California's Film and Television Industry. Calderon was chairman of the select committee, but it has not met since it was created earlier this year.

He previously was removed from the state film commission.

Assemblywoman Garcia, who last week called on Calderon to resign, plans to reissue her call on Wednesday, this time joined by several other elected officials from Southeast L.A., including the mayors of Norwalk, Downey and Montebello.

When Garcia made her initial call last week, Calderon responded by saying: "It is outrageous in a democratic society for Cristina Garcia, an elected official, to trample on the Constitution by making a mockery of the presumption of innocence."  He also suggested Garcia "would best serve her constituents by reviewing her notes from her Eighth Grade civics class."

Garcia defeated Calderon's brother, Tom, in last June's primary election for the Assembly seat once held by Ron Calderon.

The Senate last expelled a member in 1905, when four senators were kicked out of office, according to Capital Public Radio.  The Assembly has never expelled a lawmaker.  Its only two expulsion efforts failed.  A motion in 1986 was ruled out of order, and a vote in 1899 failed 62-10.

This story has been updated.

With contributions by Mike Roe and Capital Public Radio

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