California lawmaker pleads innocent to corruption charges

Dan Whitcomb and Dana Feldman
California Senator Ron Calderon watches Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (not pictured) as he signs into law a bill that would move the date of the California presidential primary from June to February during a ceremony at the governor's mansion in Sacramento, California, in this March 15, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/William Foster/Office of Governor Schwarzenegger/Handout via Reuters/Files

By Dan Whitcomb and Dana Feldman LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California state senator pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges he took bribes from a businessman as well as from undercover FBI agents posing as Hollywood film executives to shepherd legislation in their favor. Ron Calderon, a Democrat and a member of a California political dynasty that goes back several decades, had turned himself in earlier in the day to face two dozen counts of bribery, fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. Calderon, who appeared handcuffed and shackled in his street clothes at a brief hearing at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, was ordered freed on $50,000 bond after surrendering his passport and agreeing not to leave the United States. The 56-year-old lawmaker was also ordered to return to court in March. "The United States views these charges as very serious. Today is just the first step in a long process to seek justice for a corrupt politician," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said outside court following the hearing. But Calderon's attorney, Mark Geragos, asked the public not rush to judgment against his client, who he said remained in relatively good spirits despite trying circumstances. "There is still a presumption of innocence in this country," Geragos said. Calderon is accused in a 28-page federal grand jury indictment of taking some $100,000 in cash bribes, along with plane trips, golf outings and jobs for his children, in exchange for influencing legislation. State senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a fellow Democrat, has called on Calderon to resign or take a leave of absence during the criminal proceedings, saying the senate would otherwise seek to suspend him. The senator's brother, Tom Calderon, a former member of the California State Assembly, was also named in the indictment and charged with conspiracy and seven counts of money laundering. UNDERCOVER AGENTS Prosecutors say Ron Calderon accepted bribes from Long Beach hospital owner Michael Drobot, who has agreed to plead guilty to separate federal charges, to preserve a legislative loophole that allowed Drobot to defraud the state's healthcare system out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Drobot is cooperating in the case against the Calderon brothers, prosecutors say. Calderon is also accused of accepting money from undercover FBI agents posing as executives from an independent Hollywood movie studio in exchange for supporting an expansion of film tax credits in California. The two Calderons are accused of laundering the bribe money by funneling it through Tom Calderon's consulting firm, Californians for Diversity. Tom Calderon, 59, entered a not guilty plea to the charges against him on Friday, and his defense attorney, Shepard Kopp, said he "categorically denies" the charges against him. In June, FBI agents raided the Sacramento offices of Ron Calderon and the California legislature's Latino Caucus, where he was a member of the executive board. Calderon was later removed from the board of the Latino Caucus and from his legislative committee assignments by his colleagues because of the investigation. If convicted at trial, Ron Calderon, who also faces tax fraud charges, may face a statutory maximum of nearly 400 years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines typically call for much less time. Tom Calderon could face a maximum of 160 years behind bars. (This story corrects status of case against hospital owner; has agreed to plead guilty, instead of has pleaded guilty, in paragraph 10) (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andrew Hay, G Crosse and Eric Walsh)