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Affidavit suggests state senator wrestled with secret deal

8:42 PM, Oct 31, 2013   |    comments
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St. Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Los Angeles

If the anonymously leaked, and politically explosive, allegations by federal agents are accurate, it was a meeting on July 17, 2012 where Ron Calderon made it clear: he knew was treading on thin ice.

"This is an uncomfortable thing to do," the state senator is alleged to have said to an undercover FBI agent who was secretly recording their Los Angeles meeting.

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"We cannot have a conversation we just had," said Calderon.  "We cannot have a quid pro quo conversation."

Calderon, D-Montebello, seemed to be wrestling with what the one-time sealed FBI affidavit alleges was a tangled and ultimately illegal series of payments to influence legislation.

And yet, according the 125 page document, the veteran politician accepted more than $60,000 in payments from a man he thought was an independent movie producer -- who, based on a careful analysis of the affidavit and a now deleted Twitter account -- identified himself as Rocky Patel.

The long and potentially damning narrative was first made public Wednesday night in a story broadcast by the new cable news network, Al Jazeera America.  The news organization made no mention of how it obtained an FBI affidavit that has remained sealed by a federal judge for almost six months.  It was filed shortly before agents raided Calderon's Capitol offices in the late afternoon of June 4 -- a raid that, until now, was largely believed to have been related to the Calderon family's dealings with municipal water districts in southern California.

Now, it's clear the investigation is about the movie business.

Simply put, the document alleges that Calderon accepted money in exchange for his push to modify the state's existing tax credit for movie productions filmed in California.

The story of how the state senator from a well-known political family came to meet an up-and-coming (but, as we now know, fictitious) movie producer is laid out in pretty much chronological order in the affidavit.

In short: it seems to have been by accident.

Calderon and his brother, former assemblyman Tom Calderon, were apparently the focus of an earlier FBI investigation that was going nowhere... when, as the document alleges, the senator was introduced to the undercover agent at a Los Angeles party on Feb. 24, 2012.

From there, the discussion allegedly grew to private meetings linking legislation to payments designed to look like a salary for Calderon's daughter, followed by gifts and cash for a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization run by Tom Calderon.

"Any help you could do for my kids," Calderon is alleged to have said in an early lunch, "You know, that's diamonds for me."

Patel, the name used by the agent, allegedly kept asking Calderon about the tax credit legislation -- an effort that ultimately failed at the Capitol.  But even that failure didn't seem to end their relationship.

The FBI affidavit alleges that the senator also offered information on other subjects, including unrelated payments from a health executive who needed help blocking new state regulations and the inner workings of the Legislature's Latino Caucus.

In all, there were reportedly three undercover FBI agents involved in the Calderon sting: two posing as movie executives, and one posing as the girlfriend of the man who was apparently calling himself Rocky Patel.  The girlfriend adds yet another wrinkle to the FBI investigation: she was briefly hired by Calderon for a staff job, paid with taxpayer dollars for a job she never did.

On Thursday, state Senate officials produced a series of documents that identified the woman as Tana Roberts.  Her one state paycheck, of $684.77, was reimbursed by a check from Rocky Patel on Mar. 13, 2013.

"She comes with issues," Patel allegedly said to Calderon of the woman he described as his struggling model girlfriend.

"Every girl has issues," Calderon is reported to have replied.

Much of the information in the FBI affidavit appears to have come from secret recordings made by the undercover agents, as well as a tap placed on Calderon's cell phone and a warrant used to access his email account.

Neither Calderon's staff nor his attorney, criminal defense lawyer Mark Geragos, responded to requests for comment on Thursday.

The FBI, in an emailed statement, simply said it has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate who leaked the affidavit.

Legislators mentioned by name in the document denied they were a target in the probe and said they were cooperating with authorities.  Similar statements to that effect were issued by both Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, and Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. The affidavit never says either man broke the law, though spends some time discussing De Leon and his fundraising efforts.

The most visceral reaction on Thursday came from Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who told reporters the allegations made him "sick to my stomach."

Steinberg promptly removed Calderon from his seat on the California Film Commission, scheduled to meet on Nov. 8, and suggested that his fellow Democrat may not get to keep any of his committee assignments depending on the outcome of the investigation.

The Senate leader also said guilt could end the soon-to-be termed out senator's job early.

"I believe very strongly in due process," said Steinberg.  "But ultimately, his constituents are going to ask whether he can effectively continue."

The unveiling of the secret affidavit not only reignites the story inside political circles, it also raises larger questions about the chances a quiet culture of corruption may have seeped into a Capitol that last saw a federal investigation of this magnitude in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Calderon certainly seems to know, in the quotes attributed to him, the impact of his secret meetings.

"It's gotta be delicate," he tells the agent.

 

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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