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California Senate suspends three Democratic lawmakers

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POSTED March 28, 2014 7:21 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — The California Senate voted Friday to suspend three lawmakers caught up in separate criminal cases after the latest one to be hauled into court refused to step down, the most serious house-cleaning action the chamber has taken in more than a century.

Friday’s 28-1 vote in the 40-member chamber came amid one of the most severe ethical crises in modern times for the Legislature in the nation’s most populous state. Later in the day, Gov. Jerry Brown also called on the three lawmakers to resign.

The Senate leadership said that before Friday, the chamber had never suspended a lawmaker in the institution’s 164-year history, but it has taken the more serious step of expelling lawmakers, the last time in 1905. The Assembly speaker’s office said that chamber has never suspended or expelled a lawmaker.

The resolution prevents Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, who face federal corruption charges, and Democratic Sen. Rod Wright, who is awaiting sentencing in a voter fraud case, from exercising any power of their office until the criminal cases against them have been resolved. Even so, they will continue receiving their $95,291 annual salaries.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento acknowledged the public criticism of the chamber, but he defended his leadership and the integrity of the 37 senators who have not run afoul of the law. Nevertheless, he said he has been shocked by having 7 percent of the chamber face felony charges this year, which will be his last as leader.

“One is an anomaly, two is a coincidence. Three? That’s not what this Senate is about,” Steinberg said to lawmakers before the vote.

Yee, who had championed gun-control legislation and bills targeting violent video games sold to minors, is the latest of the three senators to be charged. The San Francisco Democrat was charged in a federal criminal complaint this week with accepting bribes and coordinating an international gun-running operation.

Yee’s attorney, Paul F. DeMeester, issued a statement immediately after the Senate vote saying suspension was “the right step for now” because it acknowledges the presumption of innocence. Representatives for Calderon and Wright said they would have no comment on the suspension vote.

Later Friday, in a statement issued by the Democratic governor’s office, Brown weighed in for the first time since Yee’s arrest.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances of these cases — and today’s unprecedented suspensions — the best way to restore public confidence is for these Senators to resign,” Brown said.

Steinberg noted that the Senate already has “intensive” ethics training for its lawmakers and staff.

“But there are some things, members, that you just can’t teach,” he said. “I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality or the danger of gun-running or other such sordid activities.”

Steinberg also announced an unprecedented step of cancelling a Senate floor session in April for a mandatory ethics review, saying it is time for the Senate to “take a deeper look at our culture.”

Senate officials will go office-by-office to emphasize ethical conduct and to ask staffers to come forward if they are aware of any unethical or potentially criminal activity by lawmakers or Senate staffers.

The lone lawmaker to vote against the resolution, SR38, was Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine. One senator was present but did not vote, and nine were absent, including all three senators who were suspended. One seat is vacant.

Anderson argued that all three should be expelled outright and said it was wrong that they should continue receiving their salaries when facing such serious charges.

“If you reward bad behavior, you will get more of it,” Anderson said.

Calderon and Wright previously took leaves of absence, which also let them keep their pay. The California Constitution says lawmakers can lose their pay only if they are expelled or resign.

The suspensions drop Senate Democrats below the two-thirds majority they won in the last election, a supermajority that allowed them to act in all matters without needing support from Republicans.

The vote comes just days after federal authorities arrested Yee as part of a broader corruption probe centered on San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said he supports a proposed constitutional amendment, introduced by Steinberg on Friday, which would allow the Legislature to withhold members’ pay if they are suspended.

Yee was arrested and released on bond Wednesday following a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is accused of accepting more than $42,000 to provide introductions, influence legislation and for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker, according to an FBI affidavit that says Yee was also known as “Uncle Leland.”

Investigators said Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to help pay off campaign debts.

Wright was convicted of voter fraud and perjury and faces sentencing in May. Calderon faces federal charges for allegedly accepting $100,000 in bribes for friends and family in exchange for pushing certain bills.

Democratic Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, who is expected to succeed Steinberg as Senate leader later this year, defended the chamber’s reputation and noted that none of the bills Calderon pushed as a favor to those who were giving him cash passed the Senate.

That shows that the legislative system actually worked, he said.

“This is the best legislative institution in the country, hands down,” de Leon said. “And we’re going to get past it.”

The only similar situation faced by the Legislature in recent memory is the so-called “Shrimpscam” investigation in 1985, in which federal agents went undercover and posed as representatives of a phony shrimp-processing company. Five lawmakers resigned and went to prison for taking bribes in the FBI sting operation.

The Senate last expelled lawmakers in 1905, when four senators were ousted for malfeasance involving bribery. Only one other senator has been expelled. In 1850 during the first legislative session after California gained statehood, a senator violated Senate rules by failing to show up for sessions for more than 10 days, according to Steinberg’s office.

The 80-member Assembly has never expelled a member and considered doing so only once, officials said. That was in 1899, when an expulsion vote failed against Howard E. Wright, who represented Alameda County. Wright had been indicted on bribery charges but was not convicted.

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