California State Senate votes to suspend Yee, Calderon, Wright

SACRAMENTO -- The state Senate voted Friday to suspend three Democratic lawmakers, all accused of criminal wrongdoing, from office with pay.

The vote comes two days after Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco was charged by federal authorities with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and accepting campaign funds in exchange for political favors.

Also suspended were Sens. Roderick Wright of Inglewood and Ronald Calderon of Montebello, who had both previously taken voluntary leaves of absence to fight separate criminal cases.

President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who in previous weeks had blocked Republican attempts to oust Calderon and Wright, on Friday said the allegations against Yee "changed my point of view." He said all three lawmakers should be treated equally.

Senators who are suspended can return to office only if approved by a Senate vote. 

Yee, 65, had ignored Steinberg's demands to resign. The Senate president had warned after Wednesday’s arrest that if Yee refused to quit he would face a suspension vote. Steinberg said the allegations against Yee were “appalling” and cast a cloud over the Legislature.

“Leave. Please,'' Steinberg said Friday just before the 28-1 vote to suspend the three lawmakers.

Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) voted against the suspensions, saying the three should be expelled. He criticized the Democratic leadership for favoring suspending the three lawmakers with pay --which he called a "Roman holiday" -- instead of removing them from office.

"Senators are not above the law," Anderson said.

Under the state Constitution, a lawmaker can be expelled from the Legislature on a two-thirds vote of his or her house, or suspended by a majority vote.

Though getting his pay, Yee will not be eligible to receive the per diem expense of $163 per day provided to lawmakers who attend the senate session in Sacramento.

Steinberg said none of the suspended lawmakers "can serve another day in this Senate going forward unless they are exonerated."

He called the allegations against Yee "unfathomable" and canceled the April 7 floor session so all Senate offices can review the ethics rules.

"An official suspension puts this house on formal record that we ... distance ourselves" from the behavior of the three senators, he said.

Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) said the Yee affidavit reads like a "bad Hollywood movie.''

"All of us are shocked, dismayed by the allegations," he said.

The state Constitution does not allow the Senate to withhold pay from a suspended lawmaker, so Yee and the others will continue to draw their $95,291 annual salary.

However, Steinberg is expected to introduce a constitutional amendment, to be put before voters, that would allow the withholding of pay when lawmakers are suspended in the future, according to Steinberg's spokesman, Rhys Williams.

Yee has been released on bond but was not present for the Senate vote.

He has been charged by federal authorities with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and scheming to defraud citizens of honest services by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds in exchange for political favors.

A 137-page FBI affidavit alleges that Yee offered to help an
undercover agent buy automatic weapons and to assist another undercover agent posing as a medical marijuana businessman to meet influential legislators who could affect regulation of marijuana.

Calderon took a leave of absence earlier this month after he was indicted for allegedly taking bribes. Wright was found guilty of perjury and voter fraud.

Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt said he could not find any record of a senator being suspended by his colleagues over criminal allegations.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com