SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - So far in 2014, each month has brought news of another arrest or conviction of a Democratic California state senator. The latest was Wednesday’s arrest of Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco on federal corruption charges, news that roiled the capital and led one of Yee’s opponents in the race for secretary of state to call the Legislature a “corrupt institution.”
Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and should be flying into election season this year, easily passing legislation and setting the agenda after taming California’s busted budgets and turning their Republican rivals into a “superminority” in the nation’s most populous state.
But now their dominance could be dampened by new revelations of dirty dealings by Democrats in the state Senate. One senator was convicted of voter fraud and perjury, and two others face federal charges for alleged misdeeds that include accepting large financial bribes for friends and family in exchange for legislation and orchestrating weapons and drug trafficking to help pay off campaign debts.
U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California joined a growing list of officials Thursday in distancing themselves by demanding Yee’s resignation. The Democratic leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, warned Yee to resign or face suspension by his colleagues, saying “he cannot come back.”
Yee has only announced he is dropping out of the secretary of state race.
“I know what people are thinking. This is the third incident the Senate has had to deal with,” an emotional Steinberg said. “We are going to do everything in our power to uphold the integrity of the Senate and do the people’s business and still have a great and productive year.”
Yee’s lawyer says the senator plans to plead not guilty to charges of accepting more than $42,000 to influence legislation and introduce an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker.
Yee, who sometimes challenged Democratic leaders, had been best known publicly for his efforts to promote government transparency and public records, for which he was celebrated just last week by the Society of Professional Journalists. He also introduced several bills last year to restrict gun possession.
SPJ issued a statement Thursday saying the group will not take any action on the award until the case against Yee is resolved.
Republicans, who have been struggling to regain their political footing, have sought to capitalize on the wave of criminal charges as a way to undo Democrats’ dominance in the Legislature. Republicans have repeatedly tried to expel Sen. Rod Wright of Inglewood after he was convicted of perjury and voter fraud in January for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County. Democratic leaders have blocked those efforts, though.
Wright and Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello, who was indicted on federal corruption charges in February, are on voluntary paid leave from the Legislature. Prosecutors say Calderon accepted about $100,000 for himself and family members in exchange for promoting legislation to expand Hollywood tax credits and protect the interest of a hospital that benefited from a provision of the workers’ compensation law.
Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from Alpine who has led the expulsion efforts, blamed Democratic leaders for creating a culture of tolerance for illegal activity.
“If you refuse to act and you shirk your responsibility to act, is it a surprise that senators don’t take ethics as seriously as they should?” Anderson said.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said he does not think voters will hold all Democrats accountable for the actions of three rogue operators, but he said the allegations are worrisome.
“It’s a concern, one, because they’re all Democrats, but more than that, it’s a concern for the institution that I was honored to not just serve in but to lead, and nothing even close to that happened under that membership,” said Burton, who was Senate President Pro Tem from 1998 until 2004. “But you just don’t know.”