Lawmakers in Sacramento must make a decision to either turn their backs on colleagues accused or convicted of criminal activity, or use the scandals to restore the public's trust in California's government, a former chief speechwriter for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson says.
But lawmakers are hoping that the issue disappears after the state Senate voted to suspend three members
— Democratic Sens. Ronald S. Calderon, Roderick D. Wright, and Leland Yee — for their alleged involvement in criminal scandals, Bill Whalen, who is now a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, wrote in an op-ed piece published Monday in The Los Angeles Times.
"Giving three senators a 'time out' — with pay — allows the rest of the members a chance to express outrage, genuine or feigned," Whalen wrote. "However, it doesn't begin to address a larger question: Are these merely three bad apples, or is the larger orchard that is California's Legislature rotten to its core?"
Yee was arrested
March 26 and charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally importing firearms, in addition to another six counts of defrauding citizens of "honest services."
Calderon was charged
in February with accepting $100,000 in bribes, lavish trips and no-show jobs for his children in exchange for pushing legislation to benefit a hospital engaged in billing fraud and participating in a film industry tax scheme that actually was an FBI sting.
Wright was convicted in January of voter fraud and perjury for lying about the location of his Los Angeles County residence. He has been allowed to remain in office while awaiting sentencing in May.
If Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature are serious about such scandals, Whalen said, they would appoint an independent commission to investigate further.
"Such a commission could be composed of, say, nine appointees — three each from the governor and the respective Democratic and Republican leaderships," Whalen wrote. "This only works if there's bipartisan and nonpartisan input."
Further, he said none of the appointees should have a financial interest in the state government, such as lobbyists or consultants.
There are several good people to head up the committee, Whalen wrote, pointing out that Tom Campbell, dean of Chapman University's School of Law, would be a good pick.
Campbell, a former state lawmaker, "understands the intersection of politics, money, and ethical choices. But more important, he's one of the most incorruptible individuals to have held public office in California in the post-Watergate era. This is a mission that calls for Diogenes," Whalen said.
The commission, if formed, should examine the current cases and determine if such instances of fraud, bribery, and criminal conspiracy are something new to Sacramento or if they should be expected.
"In Wright's case, is he an anomaly, or part of a larger trend of lawmakers playing fast and loose with their 'official' voting addresses?" asked Whalen. "As for Calderon and Yee, how did their cases unfold and involve the FBI?"
The commission also needs to investigate whether the scandals strengthen the case for public funding of state campaigns, or if it should end donor limits in exchange for immediate disclosure, Whalen wrote.
"The Assembly and state Senate have legislative ethics committees," he said. "What they actually do is anyone's guess ... an independent commission should investigate whether a lackadaisical approach to ethics policing has fostered a corrupt culture."
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