Echoes of a long-ago sting operation

Allegations against Sen. Ronald S. Calderon recall 1988's Shrimpscam, which led to the conviction of 14 lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists.

SACRAMENTO — It just can't be, what they're saying about state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon — that he took $60,000 in bribes during an FBI sting operation. Nobody these days could be that stupid.

Right?

Pocketing the money from essentially a stranger who turns out to be an undercover agent?

I mean, only 25 years after a highly publicized FBI sting in the Capitol resulted in the convictions of 14 politicos — legislators, staffers, lobbyists — in what became known as Shrimpscam.

Didn't every California politician learn from that?

Maybe at least one flunked the history course.

"Twenty-five years is just enough time for people to forget," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"The cycle is pretty predictable. After a scandal, there's a rush to clean up the system. And as time passes, the politicians get that much more brazen until one of them gets caught again. And there's another push to reform. And the cycle starts all over again."

If a federal affidavit disclosed last week by the Al Jazeera cable network is legit, Calderon — a Montebello Democrat from a family of career politicians — also is believed by the FBI to have accepted $28,000 in bribes delivered by a medical company owner.

So the alleged payoffs totaled $88,000.

The $60,000 came from an agent posing as the owner of a film studio in downtown Los Angeles. He sold himself as someone seeking legislation to expand film industry tax credits. The $28,000 allegedly came from a medical entrepreneur, Michael Drobot, who was trying to throttle legislation to limit workers' compensation payments for spinal surgeries.

Attorneys for Calderon and Drobot have denied any wrongdoing by their clients. And no one has been charged.

But the 124-page affidavit cites probable cause to suspect Calderon of bribery, extortion and conspiracy; also mail and wire fraud. The document was filed in support of search warrants that led to a raid on Calderon's Capitol office in June.

It was eerily similar to the FBI assault on the Capitol in 1988, except that several legislators' offices were hit back then. Calderon appears to be the only target this time.

The 1980s federal investigation apparently targeted then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). It was encouraged by Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, who himself got stung and went to prison. Brown wasn't touched.

"Willie was smart enough not to get caught — maybe smart enough not to break the law," says campaign finance expert Robert Stern, who helped write California's political reform act in 1974.

Brown famously cautioned lawmakers to "always assume everyone is wearing a wire."

Maybe Calderon never heard the advice. His dealings with the undercover agent were recorded.

Or he fit the type that legendary Speaker Jesse Unruh shook his head about: Legislators who would get elected, arrive at the Capitol and believe they had become invisible.

"Some really think they can get away with anything because they're legislators," says Stern, who spent several years in Sacramento. "They don't learn from the past. It's hubris. It's stupidity."

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