FBI looking at Calif. lawmaker’s water legislation

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Suspended California State Senator Ron Calderon (AP Photo)

Suspended California State Senator Ron Calderon (AP Photo)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The FBI investigation of state Sen. Ron Calderon involves legislation he introduced for a Los Angeles-area water district that uses his brother as a consultant, according to two people questioned by federal agents.

The FBI hasn’t disclosed any details on the investigation of the Democrat whose Sacramento offices were raided late Tuesday. However, two people told The Associated Press on Wednesday they were questioned by the FBI about the legislation and Calderon’s brother Tom’s connections with the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

Michael Franchek, former vice president of EcoGreen Services, said agents interviewed him twice and wanted to know about a contract his water conservation consulting company unsuccessfully sought from the city of Maywood. The contract went to a firm for which Tom Calderon served as president.

Maywood is part of the Central Basin district, which paid Tom Calderon a consulting fee of $11,000 per month.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles-area elected official said agents asked him about legislation written by Ron Calderon on behalf of Central Basin. The official also said agents wanted to know about four or five contracts awarded in the last several years to companies connected to Tom Calderon.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern the FBI would be upset by public comments about an ongoing investigation.

Ron Calderon hasn’t commented on the investigation. His attorney, Mark Geragos, has denied any wrongdoing and called the investigation a witch hunt.

The Calderons are part of a powerful Southern California political family. Tom and another brother, Charles, both were assemblymen. Charles’ son, Ian, was elected to the Assembly last year.

Ron Calderon, a moderate, business-friendly Democrat from Montebello who also served in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate, was investigated by the state’s political watchdog agency in 2009 for his campaign expenditures. The Fair Political Practices Commission closed its investigation without sanctions.

In the last two years, Calderon first introduced a bill and then tried unsuccessfully to block another bill giving authority over groundwater to a neighboring district of the Central Basin.

Local officials have complained for years that the Central Basin has raised water rates and failed to provide transparency about its own spending.

U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., said in a statement Wednesday that cities had requested assistance from her office and she’s hopeful communities now are “finally able to get answers to the questions they have had for so long.”

In 2009, she asked state auditors to review the Central Basin district’s operations. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she blamed Ron Calderon for her audit request going nowhere.

“This is ratepayer money,” she said. “It’s not the Central Basin’s money.”

Joseph Legaspi, a spokesman for Central Basin, said he wasn’t authorized to respond to allegations about the agency’s operations.

“I’ve got to tell you, we have not been contacted by any of the authorities involved in this case,” Legaspi said. He said if they do contact Central Basin, “we’re certainly going to cooperate.”

Central Basin hired an outside law firm last year to look into allegations of improper conduct and conflict of interest in awarding water contracts, including allegations involving Tom Calderon. Its 160-page report, reviewed by the AP, said no evidence was found to substantiate the allegations.

Downey Mayor Mario Guerra testified before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee last year that Central Basin was not being properly managed and it was impacting the city’s water rates. The committee instead called for an audit that included Downey’s Department of Public Works, Guerra said.

That audit was sought by then-Assemblyman and now Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who was chairman of the committee. He now is vice chairman of the audit committee and chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, of which Calderon is a former leader.

Calderon’s fellow lawmakers have said little about the investigation. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that if asked, lawmakers will cooperate with the FBI.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” the Sacramento Democrat said. “This is not going to be a distraction. It’s unfortunate, the process will play itself out, and we will go from there.”

Calderon can remain in office while the investigation continues, and even if charges are filed. For instance, Sen. Rod Wright, a Democrat from Inglewood, has continued to serve while he awaits trial on eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury alleging he lived outside his legislative district.

The state Constitution does provide, however, that members may be expelled by a two-thirds vote by other members.

Calderon has been weighing a bid for state controller next year when he is forced out of the Senate by term limits. Before Tuesday’s raid, the prospects for such a bid looked brighter after state Treasurer Bill Lockyer announced this week that he would retire rather than seek the controller’s job.

Calderon’s account for a 2014 campaign has collected nearly $194,000 since 2011 but had just $12,195 in the bank at the end of 2012, according to reports filed with the secretary of state. He reported having just $370 in his Senate officeholder account at the end of the year after spending more than $60,000.

Expenses from Calderon’s officeholder account include seven nights at the Wailea Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel in Maui and a car rental there, totaling more than $2,000, as well as charges for rooms at the MGM Grand and Cosmopolitan hotels for different conferences in Las Vegas, and a staff retreat at the upscale Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. There is also a charge of $114.85 for a meeting at Hooters, in addition to hundreds of dollars for meetings at various Sacramento restaurants such as Morton’s The Steakhouse.

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