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State senators call for focus on ethics; FBI searches 2nd Yee office

Darrell Steinberg and Kevin de León call off fundraiser set for this weekend, vow to review campaign finance laws to increase transparency.

April 01, 2014|By Melanie Mason
  • State Sen. Leland Yee leaves San Francisco's Phillip Burton Federal Building after a court appearance in connection with political corruption and firearms trafficking charges.
State Sen. Leland Yee leaves San Francisco's Phillip Burton Federal… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

SACRAMENTO — Stung by criminal cases involving three state senators, Democratic legislative leaders vowed Tuesday to reassess their campaign finance practices, and canceled a lucrative golf fundraiser scheduled for this weekend.

The promise of self-scrutiny among Senate Democrats was just one way last week's criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) detailing public corruption and arms trafficking charges continues to reverberate through the Capitol. Also on Tuesday, federal agents were again present in a legislative office building, searching a room used by Yee as an overflow office, according to Senate workers.

Days after the Senate took the unprecedented step of suspending Yee and two other senators battling separate criminal investigations, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said they would conduct a "vigorous review" of fundraising practices and campaign finance laws in the coming weeks, with an emphasis on increasing public transparency.

"I've said very clearly — and I believe it — that the behavior of a couple of people should not reflect upon the Senate and its members," Steinberg said. "At the same time, I recognize that a lot of members of the public believe something different."

"This is our opportunity to be humble, to look inward as well and to make recommendations about internal and/or external changes that ought to be made to improve the ethical environment of the Senate," he added, mentioning as a possibility a proposal for public campaign financing.

The senators announced the cancellation of the Pro Tem Cup, an annual golf fundraiser at Torrey Pines in San Diego that was planned for this weekend. Tickets, benefiting the state Democratic Party, ranged from $15,000 to $65,000 per person.

Contributions connected to the event that have already been made would not be returned, Steinberg said, adding that that money would have been raised anyway.

"We're not standing down," he said. The current campaign finance system, he said, is "fraught with a lot of problems, but it is the system. And we're going to compete under the rules, and we're going to go all out to raise our elections."

Secretary of State candidate Dan Schnur criticized lawmakers Tuesday for not reacting more aggressively to the spate of ethics troubles in the Senate.

"There has been almost no meaningful effort on the part of the state's political leaders to clean up the Capitol's culture of corruption," Schnur said. The no-party-preference candidate, who changed his party affiliation from Republican several years ago, has called for a ban on fundraising during the legislative session.

De León noted that Schnur, as a candidate himself, has been raising cash for his campaign.

"If you're going to talk the talk, why don't you walk the walk?" asked De León, who is next in line to lead the Senate.

"Let's not politicize this," De León added. "Those of us that truly care about this institution, let's see what we need to do and move forward."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paige St. John contributed to this report.

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