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California state senator is targeted in FBI searches

Agents give no reason for raids on offices of Montebello Democrat Ron Calderon and the Latino Caucus.

June 04, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy, Anthony York and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — FBI agents searched offices in the Capitol on Tuesday — the first such raid in 25 years — serving warrants and carting away evidence in what law enforcement officials said was a corruption probe that began in Los Angeles County.

As the agents combed the offices of state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and the Latino Legislative Caucus into the evening, a federal law enforcement source said Calderon, a member of the caucus, was "the focus of the investigation." Authorities would not say what they were seeking or disclose the nature of the investigation.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said only that a court order prevented any further public disclosure about the matter and the agency was "taking evidence respective to an ongoing investigation."

In the 1980s, some 30 federal agents descended on the Capitol at the end of a corruption sting that became known as Shrimpscam, after legislators were lured into sponsoring fake legislation by undercover law enforcement officials offering bribes. About a dozen officials went to prison on charges including racketeering, extortion and mail fraud.

As word of Tuesday's searches spread through the building, reporters swarmed outside Calderon's office. Senate Sergeant at Arms Tony Beard released a statement saying: "We have no further information. The Senate has and will continue to fully cooperate with the agents in this matter."

Capitol janitors were instructed to stay out of the targeted offices as the search continued into the night. Shortly before 8 p.m., Beard escorted two women — one holding a stack of folders — to Calderon's office door, telling people inside: "Your agents are here." Beard said he did not know how late the investigators would stay.

Roughly 90 minutes later, about 10 people emerged from the office carrying three cardboard boxes, several plastic boxes, a beat-up black briefcase and a plastic folding table.

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, said the investigation began in the federal agency's central California district, which includes Los Angeles. She declined to provide more details.

Other law enforcement sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the raids were part of a public corruption investigation in Los Angeles County.

Calderon attorney Mark Geragos called the probe a sham.

"The only one so far who has done anything improper is the government," Geragos said. "The government is out of control and we are going to take the appropriate action to hold them accountable. They should be ashamed of themselves."

Geragos said he plans to go to court to ask that anything taken from the senator's office be returned. Asked about the search of caucus records, Geragos said: "They were desperate to try to justify their … investigation."

Calderon, whose whereabouts were unclear at the time of the raid, is part of a political dynasty that stretches back three decades — a member of his family has held a seat in the California Legislature every year since 1983.

He was the last of his three brothers to arrive in the Capitol, winning an Assembly seat in 2002 and replacing his brother Tom.

In 2006 he moved to the Senate. His district includes Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Montebello and Whittier, among other cities.

The senator has been a controversial figure in the Capitol.

In 2010, after he voted to support an environmental waiver for a football stadium proposed in the city of Industry, Calderon was one of a few lawmakers to accept tickets to a Lakers playoff game from the stadium developer, Majestic Realty.

He previously came under scrutiny for his handling of his legal defense fund, which was set up to cover costs stemming from a vote recount in 2006. Calderon spent thousands of dollars from the defense account on a fundraiser, golf outings and a private airplane service.

He received a warning letter from the state's ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, but was not penalized.

The commission subsequently adopted new rules to limit the use of such funds to attorneys' fees and legal costs.

Before Tuesday's raid, the FBI had talked with at least one official in Los Angeles about contracts at a local water agency awarded to one of Calderon's brothers.

Ron Calderon has authored legislation on behalf of the agency, the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

Michael J. Franchek, a vice president at EcoGreen Services LLC, said Tuesday that an FBI agent had interviewed him twice since March.

Among the topics discussed was business awarded to Tom Calderon, who has been paid up to $140,000 a year by the water board for consulting services.

Franchek said he talked to the agents about a federal stimulus grant to Central Basin.

The water agency officials held competitive bidding and chose a firm called Water2Save to work on the project. Tom Calderon also has a consulting contract with Water2Save.

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