Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of accepting more than $100,000 in cash bribes, as well as plane trips and dinners, in exchange for supporting legislation.
The 56-year-old lawmaker, who was brought to court by U.S. Marshals following his surrender, wore street clothes, but was shackled at the wrists, ankles and waist. A federal magistrate judge ordered Calderon to surrender his passport and allowed his release on a $50,000 bond, signed by his wife.
Calderon’s daughter sat beside her mother for the brief hearing. With attorney Mark Geragos at his side, Calderon said little in court, answering “yes” when asked if he understood the charges and if he would abide by the terms of his release.
A tentative trial date was set for April 22.
Outside court, Geragos said his client denies the charges and asked that the public withhold judgment until the evidence has been heard.
“There is still a presumption of innocence in this country” Geragos said.
Calderon is charged in a 24-count indictment with federal mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, bribery, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and aiding in the filing of false tax returns. The charges were announced Friday, and Calderon surrendered Monday.
“Today is the first step in the long process of seeking justice for a corrupt politician,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said.
Calderon’s 59-year-old brother, Tom, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and seven counts of money laundering for allegedly funneling bribe money through a nonprofit group and consulting company he operates. He was freed on a $25,000 bond.
His attorney, Shepard Kopp, said his client “categorically denies every charge in the indictment.” Kopp added that he wants to see proof of prosecution claims that Tom Calderon made incriminating statements to an undercover agent.
“If they didn’t record those conversations, I’d want to know why,” the attorney said.
According to the indictment, Ron Calderon “would solicit and accept benefits, such as employment for his son, trips on privately charted airplanes, golf at exclusive, high-end golf resorts and meals at expensive restaurants” from Michael D. Drobot, the former owner of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach.
The alleged bribes were offered in exchange for the senator’s support of legislation that would delay or limit changes in California’s workers’ compensation laws, according to the indictment.
Drobot, 69, of Corona del Mar, was charged in a separate case with running a health care fraud scheme that federal prosecutors said involved millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks in exchange for referrals of thousands of patients who underwent spinal surgeries. Those operations led to more than $500 million in bills being fraudulently submitted to the state workers’ compensation system, prosecutors said.
Drobot has agreed to plead guilty to two counts and faces up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ron Calderon is also alleged to have taken bribes from two undercover FBI agents posing as film producers in a separate scheme to affect legislation to extend film-industry tax credits.
At one point in the investigation, prosecutors alleged, at least one cash bribe exchanged hands
In that case, the senator is alleged to have solicited and accepted trips to Las Vegas, meals and employment for his daughter “with the understanding that such benefits were to influence” official acts in connection with the film tax credit. Prosecutors said Calderon agreed to support the film tax legislation in exchange for his daughter being paid $3,000 a month — a total of nearly $40,000 — for a job in which she performed no work.
Calderon also allegedly solicited a $5,000 payment for his son’s college tuition and $25,000 for Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit political group run by Tom Calderon.
According to prosecutors, the Calderons funneled money through Californians for Diversity and Tom Calderon’s consulting firm, and some of the cash went to Ron Calderon and his daughter.
Ron Calderon was elected to the state Senate in 2006. His district includes Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Montebello and Whittier, along with other cities.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) called the charges “stunning.”
Garcia, whose district includes many of the same communities represented by Calderon, said the indictments would “further sever the public’s trust in their government.”
“Much of this corruption has occurred in my own backyard, where I have fought for ethical behavior and public accountability at all levels of government. Today’s charges are a setback and damaging to our political system,” she said in a written statement.
“I firmly believe that the majority of elected officials serve honorably and ethically, but when corruption arises, we must all act in the public’s interest.”
Garcia has called on Calderon to resign.
On Monday, Senate leaders said Calderon should either resign or take a leave of absence, and gave him until March 3 to decide. If he refuses, the Senate could vote to suspend him from office, according to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
Geragos said his client would not make a decision until they review the U.S. Attorney’s case. “I will make the decision when I know how much time I need him to spend with me preparing for the case,” Geragos said.
Born and raised in Montebello, Calderon worked in the manufacturing industry and as a mortgage banker and real estate agent before he was elected.
Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman, was a longtime consultant with the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which has been linked to the federal investigation.
The Calderon brothers face multiple years in federal prison if convicted of all charges, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ron Calderon was stripped of his Senate committee assignments in light of the federal probe.
EGP staff contributed to this report.