On the FBI at the Capitol and legislators fundraising

The FBI's rubber-gloving of the Capitol prompts a look at campaign contributions

Greg Lucas' state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at www.californiascapitol.com.

The line between felony and fundraising is explicit.

Yet California legislative history over the past quarter century shows 14 Democratic and Republican legislators, lobbyists and others convicted in a federal-corruption investigation that came to light in 1988 for soliciting campaign contributions outside the lines.

That’s one reason why the presence of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in the Capitol sharply shifts the building’s ebb and flow.

Things slow down a bit. Actions are examined more judiciously. Soul-searching by lawmakers—even those of unblemished reputation—becomes significantly more intense.

In this case, it’s the apparent federal investigation of activities involving Sen. Ron Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, and his brother Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman running for termed-out brother Ron’s senate seat in 2014.

When the feds pop by, it doesn’t take a subpoena to get scared straight.

Even lawmakers so square they make Ozzie and Harriet seem like perversion freaks scrutinize their contribution lists for anything potentially “wrong.” Unfamiliar donors are investigated. Votes are cataloged. The substance of all legislation voted on is examined—often for the first time.

Searches are made for any public statements about voting for another lawmaker’s bill if only certain amendments were made. Sounds benign, except it’s vote trading, an everyday Capitol occurrence that’s also a felony, should prosecutors wish to bring charges.

Again, even those in no danger of subpoena behave this way. Why? Well, because a large segment of the public believes politicians are crooks, unless they prove otherwise, and that the way their elected officials conduct business—even when 100 percent legal—often looks shady.

There’s never been anything subtle about fundraising.

“California’s rookie class of lawmakers campaigned on a pledge to clean up the Capitol, but so far they have been as busy as their more seasoned colleagues vacuuming up campaign contributions from special interests.” So begins a March 13, 1995, article on legislative fundraising in the San Francisco Chronicle. Then Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, a Hayward Democrat, said later in the story:

“Actual illegal practices are rare. There were a few bad apples in the building, but they got turned into applesauce by federal prosecutors (several years ago),” Lockyer said, referring to the aforementioned FBI sting. “What we need to respond to is an appearance of impropriety.”

Lockyer is now state treasurer and preparing to leave public service in January 2015. Apparently, the Legislature isn’t in rapid-response mode.

The article says a popular fundraising strategy “is to list which committees a legislator is on—a reminder to lobbyists of the subject areas the lawmaker can influence.”

More than 18 years later, lots of legislators, including Sen. Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat, still do the same thing.

Beneath his name on a recent invitation to contribute to his re-election, de León identifies himself as “Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee.”

Most, if not all, recipients of de León’s fundraising missive have measures either pending before or wending their way to de León’s committee.

Lobbyists know this. They earn their living navigating the complexities of the legislative process. If anyone knows all-too-well the function of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations and who the chairman is, it’s members of the “third house.”

Nonetheless, de León includes this already well-known information.

Is its inclusion a way to subliminally increase receptiveness to becoming a “patron” at $2,500 or a “sponsor” at $4,100? To insinuate the tightly woven nexus between chairperson and final committee action? To tease into consciousness any anxiety over the outcome of major issues pending with the committee, increasing the odds a suitable investment will be made?

Of course not. That would be feloniously wrong.

And way too subtle.