Exclusive: Hollywood sting
FBI investigation of a California political dynasty uncovers alleged bribery and corruption in the shadows of Tinseltown
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FBI investigation of a California political dynasty uncovers alleged bribery and corruption in the shadows of Tinseltown
LOS ANGELES — Ronald Calderon is a powerful state senator in California who holds sway over the glamorous Hollywood movie industry. He is also, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a politician on the take.
A hefty 56-year-old Democrat with salt-and-pepper hair, Calderon has been a red-carpet star in California politics for more than a decade. As an assemblyman and now a state senator representing suburban Los Angeles, he has established a well-earned reputation for spending campaign money and taxpayer funds on himself.
He’s used campaign cash to cover the finer things in life — plush golf outings, lavish trips to Cuba and Las Vegas, meals at exclusive restaurants and hotels. When California offered to purchase cars for the state’s elected officials, Calderon chose the most expensive one: a $54,830 Cadillac STS V8 luxury sedan.
But his days as a big spender may soon be over. The FBI is hot on his trail in an investigation that could become California’s biggest legislative scandal in more than two decades and could signal the downfall of a political dynasty. The FBI employed an undercover sting for more than a year that ended when agents raided the senator’s office in Sacramento in June.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit subsequently learned of the secret operation. This account is based on a 124-page affidavit, still under seal, filed by the FBI in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in support of a search warrant used in the raid.
The names of several other senators, including the Senate president and the chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, have surfaced in the case, although none has been implicated.
The document lays out a sordid tale of alleged bribery and corruption. Undercover FBI agents posed as independent movie executives interested in taking advantage of a program in which films with budgets of $1 million or more are eligible for special tax credits. The agents, focusing on Calderon, asked the senator to help lower the budget threshold to $500,000. Calderon, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on California's Film and Television Industries, agreed to help lower it to $750,000 but wanted financial assistance provided to his grown children, the affidavit says.
On June 21, 2012, for instance, in a restaurant in Pico Rivera, Calif., outside Los Angeles, Calderon said he could lower the budget threshold if the movie executive would hire his daughter, Jessica.
“There might be a play, you know, to lower the tax credit.” He went on: “Any help you could do for my kids is — you know, that’s diamonds for me.”
The agent agreed to hire Calderon’s daughter for $3,000 a month if the senator could help reduce the movie budget threshold “sooner rather than later.”
They had a deal. Calderon’s wife, Ana, would draw up an employment agreement for Jessica and the movie executive. That written agreement, Calderon said, was “to keep it legit.” The FBI summarized his thinking in the court document: “You never take money directly from people and you have to be careful about a tit-for-tat relationship.”
In reality, the record says, the arrangement was tit-for-tat: There was no work for Jessica, and payments to her were linked to Calderon’s efforts to sponsor favorable legislation. Over the course of the sting operation, the affidavit says, the FBI provided $60,000 to Calderon, much of it through his two children.
For the senator, such arrangements weren’t unusual. Separately, the FBI court filing says, Calderon also used his son, Zachary, to accept kickbacks from a hospital executive, Michael D. Drobot, whose companies have received more than $161 million in state insurance payments. The state has sued Drobot, alleging he was behind “multiple fraudulent schemes.”
State Sen. Ronald Calderon accepted bribes from a Southern California hospital executive who ran an alleged workers’ compensation scheme that brought the executive tens of millions of dollars, according to a sealed FBI affidavit obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
Ronald Calderon is part of a California political dynasty that has controlled powerful state legislative committees for decades. During that time, the Calderons have been sharply criticized in the California media for using campaign cash for personal benefit. Indeed, politics and money are the lifeblood of the Calderon family.
According to the affidavit, Ronald and his older brother Thomas, who previously held a seat in the California State Assembly, have collected more than $1 million in payments from people who have wanted to shape California laws to their benefit. In some cases, the Calderons used Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit organization connected to the Latino caucus, as their personal slush fund.
James J. Wedick, a former FBI special agent, reviewed the court document at the request of Al Jazeera. Wedick is an expert on undercover sting operations. In 1988, his agents set up a front company in California and paid bribes in a case that led to the conviction of four elected officials and 10 legislative aides.
This time around, he said, voters in California can expect to see another shake-up of politics and government. “It’s going to be an ugly scene when this information comes to light,” Wedick said. “That, in fact, you have elected officials taking money in exchange for legislation. It undermines our democracy.”
The story of the Calderon political dynasty begins in 1982, when Charles “Chuck” Calderon won the District 59 seat in the California State Assembly. In 1988, he led a group of five assemblymen in unsuccessfully challenging the leadership of powerful Speaker Willie Brown. The speaker stripped the challengers of their committee chairmanships and removed them from their choice offices.
But Calderon was not deterred. In 1990, he won a seat in the state Senate and would later become Senate president, the first Latino to hold the position in California. At the same time, he was dogged by ethics charges. In 1994, the state fined him $15,000 for spending campaign funds on personal expenses.
With his political star rising, Calderon laid the path for his siblings to join the family business of politics. In 1998, Thomas won a seat in the Assembly and was handed the plum chairmanship of the Insurance Committee. In 2002 he ran unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner. Meanwhile, Ronald, the youngest brother, ran for and claimed Thomas’ former Assembly seat.
Ronald moved to the state Senate in 2006, and Charles, having lost an earlier bid to be state attorney general, reclaimed the seat in the Assembly.
“What makes the Calderons unique is that they are passing on a baton within the same family, within the same surname,” said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies California politics. “It’s not at all uncommon for an elected official who’s leaving office, particularly after a long term of service, to designate a successor … With the Calderons, though, the desire seems to have been to maintain the influence within the same family.”
Ronald, the least polished of the three brothers, rose in power and influence after joining the state Senate. He was appointed to the California Film Commission, which allocates $100 million in annual state tax credits to various film projects. He also became active in the increasingly powerful Latino caucus and, by 2011, was appointed its vice chairman.
The next year, Ronald Calderon met an independent movie executive who was eager to see the state tax credit requirements changed. Calderon did not realize that the friendly movie executive was an FBI undercover agent.
The FBI affidavit provides rich details on the sting. It indicates that an unidentified legislative aide introduced Ronald Calderon to an undercover agent at a lunch event in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2012. The agent presented himself as an independent movie executive with a studio in downtown L.A. Calderon described the movie tax credit program and also mentioned that his daughter, Jessica, was interested in the film industry.
Over a subsequent lunch meeting, the legal document says, Calderon and the agent brokered their deal: The movie studio would hire Jessica, and Calderon would sponsor legislation that would change the movie budget requirements for a tax credit from $1 million to $750,000.
On July 17, 2012, about a month after that lunch meeting, Calderon visited the agent’s apartment in Los Angeles. The agent told him that paying Jessica a monthly retainer was “not the industry standard,” according to the FBI account. The agent said he wasn’t paying to hire Jessica — he was hiring the senator. The affidavit describes this conversation:
“Money is not an object,” the undercover agent said. “I mean, I’m ready to write a check for the next year if that’s what you want —”
“Right, right,” Calderon said, interjecting.
“For everything. That’s not the issue. And it’s never been an issue.”
“Uh, huh,” Calderon said.
“Jessica’s talent, uh, her acumen — that’s not even an issue. That the whole concept behind this was — we have a relationship. We have a professional relationship. We have a business relationship. And to put it in very blunt terms, me hiring Jessica was not about her talents, right? It was more about accommodating something that you needed. And you needed me to take care —”
“Helping your children,” the agent finished.
“Right,” Calderon said.
An all-expenses-paid trip to Napa Valley; a wad of cash, carefully counted out, laid on a desk and tucked into a suit pocket; a suitcase filled with money picked up at an airport hotel. These are just a few ways bribe money has been handled by politicians in which political favors are peddled for hard cash.
By August 2012, according to the affidavit, Jessica had not performed any work for the fictitious movie studio but had received $27,000 in payments. The FBI document says that when a check arrived at Calderon’s ranch-style house in Montebello, where Jessica also lived, Calderon emailed the agent using coded language: “Package received.”
Calderon invited the agent to attend the Imagen Awards ceremony, honoring Latino entertainers, with him at the Beverly Hilton hotel on Aug. 10, 2012, the filing says. Calderon and his wife attended, and the agent came with a date of his own, another FBI operative who played the part of his girlfriend and an aspiring model. At the awards dinner, Calderon described how he planned to introduce an amendment in the Senate to lower the movie tax credit requirements. “Nobody will ever know that the reason this happened is because of you,” he told the agent, according to the FBI document. “I would not have pushed this hard if it wasn’t for you.”
But his amendment hit a roadblock. A legislative aide soon informed him that the amendment would require a two-thirds vote, a near impossibility. “We are screwed!” Calderon wrote to the undercover agent, according to the affidavit.
“This is bullshit, Ron. We gotta make this work,” the agent replied by email. “Even if the proposed amendment is shot down, we win. If we don’t even propose the amendment, then I’m done.”
The pair met for dinner in Pico Rivera, Calif., to reassess their situation. The agent got right to the point, according to the court record: He asked if Calderon would be willing to write a letter for the movie studio’s investor “stating his commitment to introducing legislation that would lower the threshold for the tax credit legislation to $750,000.” Calderon agreed, but for the sake of appearances, he suggested writing the letter to a group, not an individual or company. The next day, on Sept. 11, 2012, he emailed the undercover agent with several suggestions for names. “So which name do you like?” he wrote.
The agent responded with the name of a fictitious group, “United Pacific Independent Producers of California.”
In its account, the FBI says that Calderon took the bait. The senator wrote and mailed the letter of support to the FBI undercover agents, addressed to a group that didn’t exist and whose name a federal agent simply made up.
The affidavit describes how Calderon’s cash-for-favors relationship with the undercover agent continued even after the movie tax credit legislation stalled. Over dinner on Oct. 16, 2012, the undercover agent asked if Calderon could hire his girlfriend, the aspiring model who was also an undercover federal agent, for a state job in Sacramento. Trouble was, the undercover agent admitted, his girlfriend didn’t have any skills or relevant experience for legislative work. The affidavit lays out the following exchange:
“She comes with, you know, issues,” the undercover agent said.
“Yeah,” Calderon said.
“It is not a big thing,” the agent said. “But if you are willing to take that on —”
“Every girl has issues,” Calderon interrupted.
The agent told Calderon he’d make hiring his girlfriend worthwhile. He explained that he had padded his movie budgets to give him an extra $50,000 to play with — cash he could make available to a helpful senator.
“Oh, nice,” Calderon said.
The agent and Calderon began to refer to the $50,000 as a “special fund.” On Nov. 2, 2012, Calderon asked the agent to pay $5,000 to Berklee College of Music in Boston for tuition for his son, Zachary.
“Maybe we can get a $5,000 check to Berklee College of Music and Zach just turns it in,” he said.
The agent agreed to pay the tuition, but said $5,000 would make only a small dent in the $50,000 special fund. According to the affidavit, Calderon said they could deposit the rest into other accounts, including Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit organization controlled by Thomas Calderon.
Ronald and Thomas Calderon used the nonprofit as a slush fund, the FBI alleges:
“We have this nonprofit. It is called Californians for Diversity,” Ronald Calderon told the agent. “So, we are gonna build this thing up and … then, Tom and I down the road, we build that up, we can pay ourselves. Just kind of make, you know, part of a living.”
Calderon hired the undercover agent’s girlfriend as a member of his Senate staff, despite not having an open position. The hiring required the approval of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The Senate leader declined to comment in a brief interview with Al Jazeera other than to say, “Let the investigation run its course.’’
The cash and gifts kept flowing, but Calderon failed to report them on his state ethics disclosure forms, state records show.
In late October, for example, the undercover agent reserved a table for Calderon at The Bank, a nightclub inside the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Calderon and a friend went to the nightclub and, according to the affidavit, racked up a $3,939.56 bill at the agent’s expense. Calderon took a photograph of himself with rappers Nelly and T.I. and emailed it to the agent.
Two months later, the undercover agent purchased a $5,000 ticket for Calderon to attend a fundraiser for state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who represents a Los Angeles district. The event was held during a Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas.
More money and perks flowed from the undercover agent, including a $25,000 payment to Californians for Diversity and $3,200 for Calderon to fly to Miami and meet with the undercover agent and his supposed investor. Calderon advised the investor — who was also an undercover agent — that he should hire his brother Thomas as a consultant. The investor then asked if Calderon still supported the tax credit legislation. “Absolutely,” he said, according to the court document. “You have my support even if you don’t hire Tom.”
In Miami, the FBI says, the undercover agents agreed to pay $10,000 per month — $3,000 purportedly for Jessica, $5,000 for Thomas and the additional $2,000 to cover taxes Thomas would have to pay on the income. The investor drove Ronald Calderon to Miami International Airport and handed the senator a white envelope containing $3,000 in cash. Future payments, Calderon said, should go to Californians for Diversity.
The next day, Calderon called the investor. There was a problem. His plan of having the movie studio pay $10,000 per month to Californians for Diversity wouldn’t work, he said. State Sen. Ricardo Lara, chair of the Latino caucus, was taking greater control of nonprofits associated with the caucus.
“Californians for Diversity is tied into the Latino Caucus in terms that it’s being sanctioned by them, and that’s why I’m able to raise the money for the purpose of promoting numbers in the caucus,” Calderon said, according to the affidavit. “So the bylaw was changed that he’s (Sen. Lara) got authority on any consultants that are hired that are paid over $5,000 a month.”
“Wait, who has authority? Tom or you?” the agent asked.
“No, the chair of the caucus. In other words, he has to authorize anything over $5,000. So right now, Tom is already getting $5,000 a month from the caucus, from our committee. For us to add to that — number one, it’s going to bring too much attention to us in what we’re doing and right now we’re in fundraising mode. And number two, then I have to go and get permission from the chair to get more, and I don’t want to do that.”
Calderon’s relationship with the generous movie producer came to an abrupt end in early June when FBI agents raided his Capitol offices in Sacramento. Soon after, he set up a legal defense fund and issued a brief statement to reporters.
“My family and I have gone through a lot the last several days,” he said. “It’s been very stressful, very hard on all of us. We’re all anxious to put this behind us and carry on a normal life.”
Despite their troubles, the Calderon money machine continues running on high octane. In September, the senator attended a two-day fundraising event at Pebble Beach Resorts for Californians for Diversity, the nonprofit run by his brother Thomas. Major supporters included Walmart Stores, the Clorox Co., Shell Oil Co., Farmers Insurance and Edelstein Gilbert, a prominent California lobbying firm. Calderon golfed with industry lobbyists and then shared fireside drinks with them in the cool evening hours.
A few days later, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit caught up with him at a luxury golf resort in Orange County.
The conversation was abrupt.
Asked about the FBI investigation as he lifted clubs from the trunk of his Cadillac, Calderon said: “I’m not really going to discuss any of that.”
He then walked into the pro shop, refusing to answer additional questions.
Al Jazeera Investigative Unit
The Washington Post and Guardian won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on NSA surveillance programs