Why I’m Disappointed In The Alleged Calderon Corruption

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Here’s another problem with California’s broken governance system, albeit one that you don’t often hear about: Even our corruption is lame.

This is a big, grand state, so our corruption should be big and grand. Alas, our system so constrains politician that even their corruption is embarrassingly small.

Take the Ron Calderon case, and the details from an affidavit obtained by Al- Jazeera America.

There are two major lines of allegations. First, that Calderon accepted $60,000 from an undercover federal agent posing as a Hollywood producer. The second, that he accepted $28,000 from a Long Beach hospital executive who was running an alleged workers’ compensation scheme. Family members got more, according to the affidavit. It’s important to note that no one has been charged, and attorneys for Calderon and others are denying all of this.

Of course, if true, these allegations sound bad, and are bad. But here are two things that are more disappointing than the possible betrayal of whatever lingering public trust that politicians may still posses.

First, Calderon got relative money, less than .0001 of the state’s overall budget of $100 billion. Second, even when motivated by alleged bribes, Calderon wasn’t able to get much done.

In the case of the undercover “film producer”, Calderon was supposed to lower the $1 million limit for Hollywood productions to qualify for a tax break. Calderon was going to lower it to $750,000, but he didn’t manage to do so. Hollywood is still fighting for the tax break’s expansion.

In the case of the hospital executive, Calderon was supposed to influence bills that would have disrupted an alleged scheme on reimbursements that exploited a legal loophole. Calderon was supposed to have convinced the sponsor of a bill to close the loophole to drop his bill. But the sponsor, Sen. Ted Lieu, didn’t drop the bill. Instead it was merged into a broader workers compensation bill that became law. It is true that under the bill, the loophole was allowed to remain open until 2014, an advantage to the health executive. But still, pretty meager.

Indeed, the affidavit raises the question – wouldn’t you have to be either an undercover agent, or just plain dumb, to bribe Calderon?

If Calderon did what the FBI affidavit alleges, he should be tried, convicted, and punished to the fullest extent of the law. Corruption is a problem, and Calderon is a problem. But the bigger problem exposed here is the weakness of lawmakers.

California lawmakers, even corrupt ones, just can’t get very much done. That may sound like a good thing in the context of Calderon. But it also means that legislators can’t do big things, particularly on spending and taxes. And money is required to make the sorts of investments – in schools, infrastructure, speedier business licensing – and deals that would serve the public.

There is no way to give lawmakers the greater power they need to do good without running the risk that they might do bad. The Calderon case is a stronger example of a lack of lawmaker power than it is of an abuse of lawmaker power. If we can make changes that unshackle our elected leaders, we will get bigger corruption cases. Such corruption won’t be good. But it would be a sign of progress.

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