When the California Senate voted last month to suspend three members who are in legal trouble, they stripped the senators' privileges, even wiped their names off official websites. The suspensions left their constituents without a voice in the Senate, but staffers in those offices continue their work as before.
Democratic senators Ronald Calderon of Montebello, Roderick Wright of Inglewood and Leland Yee of San Francisco are still getting paid, but they are barred from their offices — both in Sacramento and their districts — and from stepping on the floor of the Senate.
Calderon and Yee have been indicted by the U.S. Attorney's office in separate cases that include charges of public corruption. Wright, who was indicted on perjury charges for lying about living outside his Inglewood area district, is awaiting sentencing.
California had never before suspended a state senator, although in 1905 it voted to expel four members. But it's not new territory for a senate office to continue functioning without a senator.
Plenty have left office mid-term after being elected to other offices or taken other jobs. The rules to keep those offices running are being used in the case of the the suspended trio, said Mark Hedlund, spokesman for Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
"It's important to remember that the senate employees work for the senate itself, for the Senate Rules Committee, and they are assigned to work for individual members," Hedlund said, so despite the suspensions, they are not without supervision.
The felony cases facing termed-out senators Yee and Calderon won't be resolved before their terms end in November, so they are not coming back from their paid suspensions, Hedlund said.
A few of their former staffers — who expected to be out of work in November anyway — have left for other jobs, but for the most part, those two offices are functioning as before, Hedlund said.
Wright's situation is different because his term ends in 2016. He has asked a judge to overturn the jury's guilty verdict. If the verdict is overturned at a hearing in mid-May, Wright could return to the Senate and its privileges, Hedlund said. Even his Senate website would be restored intact.
But if the judge upholds the verdict, Wright would officially be a convicted felon and the Senate could then vote to expel him if he doesn't resign. Meanwhile, a staff of 12 workers keep the office going.
Calderon's chief of staff left more than a year ago, said office spokesman Mario Beltran. Two longtime staffers run the capitol and district offices. The combined offices have 13 staffers now, down from a high of 17 before Calderon's indictment.
There has been a downturn in volume of people looking for help with legislation because the office does not have a voting senator, Beltran said. Those people are referred to an Assembly member's office. The 80 percent of the office's usual work was helping constituents deal with state agencies, and that has not abated during Calderon's absence, Beltran said.
The websites of the three suspended senators have been stripped of all references to them and their accomplishments. The sites now only have basic information about the district and the services the office can provide. Maplight, a nonprofit organization that tracks money and politics, archived the web pages and other information about Yee, Calderon and Wright.