Two California state senators deny involvement in Calderon schemes

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg denies any wrongdoing on his part in the hiring of an FBI undercover agent

State Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, center, talks with Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, after they failed to cast a vote for the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, June 28, 2011.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and another influential state senator, Ted Lieu, vigorously denied any involvement in alleged bribery schemes linked to Sen. Ronald Calderon. The names of Steinberg and Lieu emerged in a sealed FBI affidavit laying out the allegations against Calderon.

In an exclusive report on Oct. 30, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit detailed how the FBI conducted an undercover sting operation against Calderon. Agents posed as independent movie producers interested in changing California’s film tax credit requirements. According to the FBI affidavit, Calderon accepted more than $60,000 from undercover agents in exchange for sponsoring favorable legislation.

In a tough statement issued today, Steinberg took issue with comments attributed to Calderon in the FBI affidavit. The Democratic leader said: "The assertions made in certain conversations described in the affidavit bear no resemblance to reality and are a universe apart from how the Legislature that we know and honor every day conducts the people’s business."

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He said he would not "dignify" any of the "off-the-wall claims allegedly made in private by Senator Calderon."

Steinberg’s office also disclosed that he had removed Calderon as a member of the California Film Commission, which oversees the $100 million film industry tax credit program. At a press conference in Sacramento, Steinberg said that he was "sick to my stomach" after reading the affidavit.

The 124-page affidavit mentions Steinberg’s name several times. It describes how Calderon negotiated the hiring of an undercover agent’s supposed girlfriend on his Senate staff. The woman, who was said to have no relevant experience or skills, also was an FBI agent.

Calderon, according to the affidavit, said Steinberg approved the hiring request, describing it as "a special ask."

Steinberg said Calderon’s request for hiring approval was "routine" and that it was "processed through normal channels." He also emphasized that he had not supported Calderon’s film tax credit proposal.

Meanwhile, Senator Lieu, a Democrat from Torrance, Calif., released a statement denying involvement in Calderon’s alleged bribery plots. He said he had been questioned by federal investigators last summer and was assured that he was not a target but a witness in the case.

Lieu’s name came up in connection with another aspect of the undercover investigation. According to the affidavit, Lieu dropped his sponsorship of a bill that would have prevented separate reimbursements for spinal implants. That legislation would have negatively affected Michael D. Drobot, who was at the time the chief executive officer of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach, a busy spinal surgery clinic.

The California State Compensation Insurance Fund, a quasi-governmental organization that makes payments on workers’ compensation claims, filed racketeering charges against Drobot and his medical companies earlier this year. The fund alleged that he received $161 million through inflated reimbursement fees.

The FBI affidavit says Calderon protected Drobot’s interests. Drobot, in turn, paid $28,000 to Calderon through his son, who worked a summer job, according to the FBI account. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Drobot strongly denied inflating his fees or making illegal payments to Calderon.

In his statement, Lieu said he was cooperating with the investigation and described public corruption as "an insidious evil in our representative democratic government."

He went on to say: "I never dropped Senate Bill 959, which banned separate payments for spinal implants. SB 959 was merged and incorporated word for word into a larger and more comprehensive workers compensation reform package that was signed into law. The government has requested that I not discuss their investigation and I will honor that request."

State Sens. Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara, also named in the FBI affidavit, did not return Al Jazeera’s calls for comment.

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