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State Sen. Ronald Calderon's choice of a spokesman troubles some

Ex-Bell Gardens Councilman Mario Beltran's criminal record has critics questioning his role as a key aide to Calderon. Beltran says he has changed and is grateful for 'second chance.'

August 24, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy
  • Mario Beltran, a former Bell Gardens councilman, joined state Sen. Ronald Calderon's staff in March after being sentenced to probation in a criminal case that banned him from holding elected office for four years.
Mario Beltran, a former Bell Gardens councilman, joined state Sen. Ronald…

SACRAMENTO — As state Sen. Ronald Calderon labors in the shadow of a federal corruption investigation, he is relying on a former politician who knows what it is like to be in prosecutors' cross hairs.

Calderon's chief spokesman is former Bell Gardens City Councilman Mario Beltran, who joined the Senate staff in March after being sentenced to probation in a criminal case that banned him from holding elected office for four years. He pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money.

Beltran, 36, had previously been sentenced to probation after being convicted of filing a false police report.

Now he handles media calls for Calderon. They have grown more frequent since the FBI raided the senator's Capitol office June 4 in what a law enforcement source said is a probe of Calderon's "income stream." Calderon has said he has done nothing wrong.

The hiring of Beltran angered many leaders in the area Calderon represents.

Downey Mayor Mario Guerra said members of that city's council were surprised when Beltran showed up at a meeting saying he was representing Calderon.

"It's snubbing the public and saying we're going to do whatever we want to — we don't care about ethics, the past or what's the best for our residents," Guerra said. "And our City Council took exception to that."

He said some council members had the city manager convey their concern about Beltran's role to Calderon's office but were rebuffed.

"We know Mario Beltran," added Bell City Councilman Nestor Valencia. "It would be highly improper to have any senator, Assembly member, congressperson hire him, considering his history in our community."

Others say Calderon's employment of Beltran reflects the importance the lawmaker places on loyalty.

"It should give pause to any elected official to hire somebody with that kind of record," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. "But sometimes that kind of blood is very thick in politics."

Beltran said he was grateful for Calderon's trust and that of former state Sen. Gil Cedillo, a member of the L.A. City Council who also employed Beltran at one time.

"They believed that I can deal with the job as a legislative aide, and they believe in second chances, and they gave me a second chance to do something that I like a lot, which is public service, working in the Legislature," Beltran said. "I am doing my best not to disappoint that confidence they have given me."

Beltran was a rising star and councilman when he was sentenced in 2006 to three years' probation after being convicted of filing a false police report. He told police that he had been mugged by a man in downtown L.A. and his council badge and wallet were stolen.

A witness said that Beltran was with a woman at the Huntington Hotel. The woman testified that Beltran had groped her in the hotel hallway and that, when others came to her aid, he dropped his wallet and cellphone. The woman said she grabbed some of his possessions by accident. She later turned them in to police.

During a trial, the prosecutor said Beltran had lied to officers because he was embarrassed. Witnesses testified that Beltran had been drunk at a downtown nightclub and passed out in a hallway of a hotel used by prostitutes.

Two years later, police raided Beltran's home and City Hall office as part of an investigation into an alleged financial crime. He was not charged in that case.

In 2009, while on Calderon's legislative staff, Beltran was accused by prosecutors of misusing campaign funds, including a contribution from Calderon, to pay for his legal defense in the 2006 criminal case.

Beltran pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges, including failing to file campaign disclosure forms and deposit cash contributions. He was sentenced to four years' probation.

As a result of that plea agreement, an L.A. County Superior Court judge dismissed seven counts of grand theft but banned Beltran from elected or appointed office for four years. Beltran then resigned from the Bell Gardens City Council.

Calderon declined to comment for this article. Cedillo said Beltran should never have been banned from elected office.

"That badge case was a farce. It was a travesty of justice. You had a young man who was innocent. He was a model citizen, elected to local government," Cedillo added. "He did something that most 27-year-olds do at one time — he drank too much alcohol. From that he was mugged, he was rolled. He was the victim."

Beltran, whose current Senate job pays $65,000, says he has changed since those days.

"I matured a lot from that experience," Beltran said. "My respect and appreciation for government is the same, has always been very high."

Kathay Feng, executive director of the good-government group California Common Cause, said everyone has the potential to be rehabilitated. But "elected officials should consider what message they send to the public when they hire someone with a history of abusing the public trust."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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