Historic vote suspends three state senators

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

With last week’s arrest of California state Sen. Leland Yee, who faces federal charges of corruption and arms trafficking, the state Senate voted last Friday to suspend Yee and two other members accused of criminal activity.

“It’s unfortunate the Senate was forced to take the actions it did in order to restore the public’s confidence,” said Republican state Sen. Jean Fuller. “The preferred action of course would have been, and continues to be, for these senators to resign immediately.”

The unprecedented action on the part of state Senators — who voted 28-1 to suspend the members, with pay — is the first time such a measure has been taken in the history of the California legislature. Other members suspended include Democrat Ron Calderon, who was charged with bribery and corruption in an FBI sting last year, and Democrat Roderick Wright, who was convicted earlier this year on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud.

For nearly a year the issue of elected officials’ misconduct has been plagued by partisan division. When the FBI raided the Sacramen-to offices of Calderon last June, Republicans promptly began calling for his suspension. But without support from the Democrats, who control both houses of the state legislature and every state office, those attempts never gained steam.

The defense of this inaction against the accused began to crumble in January when Wright was convicted, but remained in office and continued to collect his salary. Critics decried this “paid vacation.”

The following month, Calderon and his brother Tom were indicted and charged with accepting bribes, trips and other lavish gifts in exchange for support of certain legislation. Calderon voluntarily took a leave of absence from office, but said he would not resign.

The arrest of Yee, a Democrat, sent shock waves through the political landscape when accusations that the staunch supporter of gun control was one of 26 implicated in an illegal gun running operation involving Chinese gangster Raymond Chow.

Investigators say Yee also took bribes from undercover agents in exchange for political favors in order to pay off the campaign debt from his unsuccessful bid for San Francisco mayor in 2011. Up until allegations were made public, he was staging a campaign for secretary of state.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who just weeks earlier had resisted the GOP’s calls for suspension, said that the recent revelations “obviously changed my point of view.”

The lone dissenting vote was cast by state Sen. Joel Anderson, a San Diego Republican, who said that suspensions alone were not sufficient, and that the three members should be expelled.

Steinberg argued that the state constitution does not give the legislature that authority. He did, however, vow to introduce a constitutional amendment to be placed on the November ballot that would give future legislators that option in such circumstances.

The senate leader added that he would be requiring ethics reviews of each office, but cautioned his colleagues against “attacking” during the upheaval.

Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, said she intends to put together a bill package that would “start rebuilding the public’s trust in this institution.”

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and a host of legislators from both parties continue to call on the three senators to resign.

Story First Published: 2014-04-02