By FRED SHUSTER
City News Service
Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, pleaded not guilty today to federal charges of accepting more than $100,000 in cash bribes, as well as plane trips and dinners, in exchange for supporting legislation.
The 56-year-old lawmaker appeared in court wearing street clothes, but was shackled at the wrists, ankles and waist. A magistrate judge allowed him to be released on $50,000 bond, but ordered Calderon to surrender his passport.
A tentative trial date was set for April 22.
Calderon is charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, bribery, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and aiding in the filing of false tax returns. The charges were announced Friday, and Calderon surrendered to federal authorities this morning.
According to the 24-count indictment, Ron Calderon “would solicit and accept benefits, such as employment for his son, trips on privately charted airplanes, golf at exclusive, high-end golf resorts and meals at expensive restaurants” from Michael D. Drobot, the former owner of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach.
The alleged bribes were offered in exchange for the senator's support of legislation that would delay or limit changes in California's workers' compensation laws, according to the indictment.
Drobot, 69, of Corona del Mar, was charged in a separate case with running a health care fraud scheme that federal prosecutors said involved millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks in exchange for referrals of thousands of patients who underwent spinal surgeries. Those operations led to more than $500 million in bills being fraudulently submitted to the state workers' compensation system, prosecutors said.
Drobot has agreed to plead guilty to two counts and he faces up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Calderon’s brother, Tom Calderon, 59, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and seven counts of money laundering for allegedly funneling bribe money through a nonprofit group and consulting company he operates. He was freed on $25,000 bond.
His attorney, Shepard Kopp, said outside court that his client “categorically denies every charge in the indictment.” Kopp added that he wants to see proof of prosecution claims that Tom Calderon made incriminating statements to an undercover agent.
“If they didn't record those conversations, I'd want to know why,” the attorney said.
Ron Calderon is also alleged to have taken bribes from two undercover FBI agents and a businessman in a separate scheme to affect legislation to extend film-industry tax credits.
At one point in the investigation, prosecutors alleged, at least one cash bribe exchanged hands.
In that case, the senator is alleged to have solicited and accepted trips to Las Vegas, meals and employment for his daughter “with the understanding that such benefits were to influence” official acts in connection with the film tax credit. Prosecutors said Calderon agreed to support the film tax legislation in exchange for his daughter being paid $3,000 a month -- a total of nearly $40,000 -- for a job in which she performed no work.
Calderon also allegedly solicited a $5,000 payment for his son's college tuition and $25,000 for Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit political group run by Tom Calderon.
According to prosecutors, the Calderons funneled money through Californians for Diversity and Tom Calderon's consulting firm, and some of the cash went to Ron Calderon and his daughter.
Ron Calderon was elected to the state Senate in 2006. His district includes Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Montebello and Whittier, along with other cities.
Born and raised in Montebello, Calderon worked in the manufacturing industry and as a mortgage banker and real estate agent before he was elected.
Tom Calderon, a former state assemblyman, was a longtime consultant with the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which has been linked to the federal investigation.
Ron Calderon faces up to 396 years in federal prison if convicted of all charges. Tom Calderon faces up to 160 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Ron Calderon was stripped of his Senate committee assignments in light of the federal probe.