The man in a blue dress shirt and gray slacks seemed out of place as he sat with a group of accused criminals in a federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles Friday afternoon. Unlike the others, he craned his neck to see who was in the audience as a federal marshal watched over him.
Former State Assemblyman Tom Calderon, 59, is now a high-paid consultant and part of one of the most powerful political families in Southern California. But here he was in handcuffs, which were attached to a metal chain around his waist.
He and his younger brother — State Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) — are accused in a bribery case that sent shockwaves through California politics. It resonated from the family's base of operations in southeast L.A. County to the capitol building in Sacramento.
Ron Calderon, 56, is at the center of the scandal. A federal grand jury on Thursday handed down a 24-count indictment accusing him of accepting $100,000 in bribes and kickbacks.
The charges against Ron Calderon include fraud, bribery and money laundering. If he is convicted on all counts, he could face a maximum sentence of 396 years in federal prison. He is expected to surrender to authorities on Monday. (You can read the full indictment below.)
Federal prosecutors accuse Tom Calderon of essentially laundering his brother's cash through his political consulting firm and a nonprofit he led, Californians for Diversity. He pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to money-launder. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum sentence of 160 years in prison
Tom Calderon's attorney Shepard Kopp said his client will fight the charges.
“Where’s the evidence that he had any knowledge or understanding that there was any impropriety in the financial transactions?” Kopp asked. "The truth will come out."
Ron Calderon's criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos could not be reached by KPCC for comment Friday, but told the Los Angeles Times, "We welcome the opportunity to disprove these allegations in a courtroom."
Federal prosecutors said the truth is the brothers used their positions of power to enrich themselves.
"Public corruption is a betrayal of the public trust that threatens the integrity of our democratic institutions," said Andre Birotte, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, during a news conference Friday.
A third brother, former State Sen. Charles Calderon, 63, and his son, Assemblyman Ian Calderon, 28, were not named in the indictment.
Prosecutors have described the case as a wide-ranging and ongoing federal investigation into political corruption.
The indictments could mark the end of the Calderons' political dominance in Southeast Los Angeles County. It stretches back more than 30 years, when Charles Calderon first ran for the Montebello School Board. The Calderon name in southeast Los Angeles County has been compared with other political dynasties.
"This breaks their power," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, on KPCC's AirTalk. "Certainly the political career of Ron and Tom Calderon is over."
Hours after the charges were announced, Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg called on Calderon to resign – and said he would seek to suspend the senator if he does not leave voluntarily.
"Given the seriousness of the charges that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a public official, Sen. Calderon's continued service is a cloud over all the important work that we must get done this year," Steinberg said in a statement. "It is in the best interest of the people and the Senate if he resigns. I call on him to do so."
Last fall, after a sealed FBI affidavit outlining the government's case was leaked to the media, Steinberg stripped Calderon of his committee assignments. He was also removed from the executive board of the influential Latino Caucus in the California legislature.
The Democrats could lose their super-majority in the state Senate if both Ron Calderon and Sen. Rod Wright – who has been convicted of living outside of his district – are removed from the state legislature.
According to federal authorities, Ron Calderon accepted bribes from an undercover FBI agent who posed as an executive of a film studio. In exchange, the senator said he would introduce legislation to make it easier for studios to receive tax credits for filming in California, according to the indictment.
The agent allegedly paid Ron Calderon about $40,000 through the state senator's daughter. The senator also solicited a $25,000 bribe for Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit run by Tom Calderon, and another $5,000 for his son's college tuition, according to the indictment.
The state senator is also accused of accepting bribes from Michael Drobot, the former owner of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. Ron Calderon promised to block efforts to amend a state law that allowed Drobot to make big profits from workers compensation patients seeking spinal surgery, according to the federal indictment.
In a separate criminal case, a grand jury indicted Drobot for his role in an alleged scheme that involved tens of millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks to doctors in exchange for the referrals of thousands of patients who received spinal surgeries.
The referrals to the hospital led to more than $500 million in bills being fraudulently submitted during the last five years, according to federal prosecutors.
"Drobot has agreed to plead guilty in the health care fraud scheme, and as part of this agreement, he admits paying bribes to Ron Calderon," Birotte said.
As part of his plea deal, Drobot faces up to 10 years in federal prison. He also agreed to cooperate with ongoing federal, state and local investigations. Prosecutors said Drobot is expected to surrender and be arraigned on March 31 in Santa Ana.
Federal officials say the scope of Drobot's fraud was vast.
"This is one of the largest workers' compensation fraud cases in the history of the Department of Insurance," California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled state Sen. Rod Wright's name.