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California Senate suspends 3 Democratic lawmakers

Suspensions amid criminal charges take away Democrats’ Senate supermajority in nation's most populous state

California’s Democratic-controlled state Senate has voted to suspend three Democratic members who face charges in separate criminal cases — one involving alleged international gunrunning — after the latest lawmaker to be hauled into court refused to step down.

The three suspensions drop Senate Democrats below the two-thirds majority they won in the last election — a supermajority that allowed them to act in all matters without needing support from Republicans in the 40-member chamber.

Friday's 28–1 vote came amid one of the most severe ethical crises ever to hit the Legislature in the nation's most populous state.

The resolution prevents Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon, Leland Yee and Rod Wright from exercising any power of their office until the pending criminal cases against them have been resolved. However, they will continue receiving their annual salaries of $95,291.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento acknowledged recent public criticism of the chamber, but defended his leadership and the integrity of the 37 senators who have not run afoul of the law. Nevertheless, he said he has been shocked by having 7 percent of the chamber face felony charges this year, which will be his last as leader.

"One is an anomaly, two a coincidence, but three? That's not what this Senate is about," Steinberg told his fellow lawmakers before the vote.

Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who had championed gun-control legislation and bills targeting violent video games sold to minors, was indicted this week on federal charges that included accepting bribes and coordinating an international gunrunning operation. He is the third of the three senators to be charged.

Yee's attorney, Paul F. DeMeester, issued a statement immediately after the Senate vote, saying suspension was "the right step for now" because it acknowledges the presumption of innocence.

Steinberg said the Senate already has "intensive" ethics training for its lawmakers and staff.

"But there are some things, members, that you just can't teach," he said. "I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality or the danger of gunrunning or other such sordid activities."

He called the allegations against Yee “unfathomable.”

Steinberg also announced the unprecedented step of canceling a Senate floor session in April for a mandatory ethics review, with Senate officials going office by office to emphasize ethical conduct and to ask staffers to come forward if they are aware of any unethical or potentially criminal activity by lawmakers or Senate staffers.

The lone lawmaker to vote against the resolution was Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine. He argued that all three should be expelled outright, and said it was wrong that they should continue receiving their salaries when facing such serious charges.

"If you reward bad behavior, you will get more of it," Anderson said.

Calderon and Wright had previously taken leaves of absence, which also let them keep their pay. California’s constitution says lawmakers can lose their pay only if they are expelled or resign.

The vote comes just days after federal authorities arrested Yee as part of a broader corruption probe centered on San Francisco's Chinatown district.

Steinberg was under intense pressure to take tough action with three members of his own party facing criminal charges. Both the state's U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, weighed in.

Feinstein, in a statement Thursday, called the allegations against Yee "shocking."

"It has become clear he has lost the confidence of his colleagues and for the good of his constituents should step down," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said in a statement calling for Yee's suspension that the three arrests are "tarnishing the California state Senate."

Yee was arrested and released on bond Wednesday following a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. According to an affidavit, he is accused of accepting more than $42,000 to provide introductions and influence legislation and to introduce an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker.

Investigators said Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to help pay off campaign debts.

Wright was convicted of voter fraud and perjury and faces sentencing in May. Calderon faces federal charges for allegedly accepting $100,000 in bribes for friends and family in exchange for pushing certain bills.

Democratic Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, who will succeed Steinberg as Senate leader later this year, defended the chamber's reputation and noted that none of the bills Calderon pushed as a favor to those who were giving him cash passed the Senate.

He said that shows that the legislative system actually worked.

"This is the best legislative institution in the country, hands down," he said. "And we're going to get past it."

The Associated Press

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