California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg moved to suspend three of his Democratic colleagues today who have been accused of crimes including corruption, perjury and conspiracy to traffic weapons.
Two of them — senators Ron Calderon of Montebello and Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills — have been on paid leaves of absence for roughly a month. But Steinberg said Thursday that the latest case involving Sen. Leland Yee has caused him to take things up a step by asking the Senate to cast a formal vote on the fate of their three disgraced colleagues. The senators would still be paid if suspended, because the Legislature's lawyers say they don't have the right to revoke pay unless a lawmaker is permanently expelled.
As the debate began, Steinberg said he understands the public concern.
"One is an anomaly. Two is a coincidence. Three?" he said. "I am calling on our entire body to take a deeper look at our culture."
He said he would cancel session on April 7 and conduct an "office-by-office ethics review."
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said Steinberg's move does not go far enough.
"Which is it today, more smoke a mirrors, more paid holidays for bad behavior?" he asked. "There should be only one measure on this floor...and that's to expel these members."
Yee, of San Francisco, became the latest state Senator to face criminal allegations when he was charged in federal court Wednesday with corruption and conspiracy to illegally import guns. A 137-page FBI affidavit alleges that Yee took numerous official actions as a legislator in exchange for contributions to his current campaign for secretary of state. The contributions, it turned out, were from undercover agents.
Yee was arrested Wednesday as part of a massive FBI sweep that involved more than two-dozen people accused of running guns, drugs, stolen liquor and cigarettes — and arranging murder for hire.
It was the latest turn in what's already been a tumultuous year for Democrats in the California Capitol. Last month, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Calderon on 24 counts of corruption. And in January, a Los Angeles jury found Wright guilty of perjury and voter fraud for lying about whether he lived in the district he represents.
Wright and Calderon both requested leaves of absence, so their colleagues in the Senate never actually cast a vote on their fate. Steinberg's move to suspend all three would require a majority vote by the Senate, and be an unprecedented action for the house.
A suspension is temporary, while expelling a legislator is a permanent ouster.
Steinberg said he does not think it's right to expel Calderon and Yee because they have not yet been found guilty. In Wright's case, Steinberg has said he is waiting to see if the judge upholds the jury's guilty verdict before taking an irrevocable action against him.
Steinberg plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to suspend members without pay, though that would have to be approved by voters before it could take effect.
PHOTO: Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, left, speaks on a bill, while his seat mate Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, works at his desk inside the Senate chambers in January 2014. Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli.