SCOTT SHAFER: Well, there’s nothing new or especially shocking about corruption in politics, but FBI charges against state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco took things to a whole new level. None of it has been proved, of course, yet, but the allegations are that Yee hooked up with a notorious gangster from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, taking campaign cash from undercover FBI agents in exchange for political favors while also conspiring to trafficking weapons, including shoulder-fired rockets and assault rifles. Well, Friday morning the state Legislature voted to suspend Yee and two other Democratic senators mired in legal troubles, Ronald Calderon and Roderick Wright, both from Southern California.
Joining us now to help put it all in perspective, our Sacramento bureau chief, Scott Detrow, and Daniel Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight -- that’s a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.
And Scott, let me begin with you. Describe the debate Friday morning, if you would, in the state Senate.
SCOTT DETROW: It was relatively straightforward. When you’re talking about allegations of bribery and potential gunrunning, there’s really bipartisan consensus that the allegations here are outrageous and something needs to be done about them. The divide here between Democrats and some Republicans was the degree of which to answer to this. Yee is now the third different state senator who’s facing legal problems in the last few months. But Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg acknowledged that the nature of the changes against Yee take things up to a whole new level here.
STEINBERG: I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality and the danger of gunrunning.
SHAFER: But Scott Detrow, what about those other two senators, Rod Wright and Calderon? I mean, they took a leave of absence, so what’s the difference between that and the suspensions that were voted on Friday?
DETROW: Well, I think one thing you’re seeing here is the cumulative effect. Roderick Wright is a different case than Yee and Calderon. Wright was convicted of basically lying about whether or not he lived in his Senate district. When you’re talking about Calderon and Yee, you’re talking about senators allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover agents in exchange for official favors. And that’s something that Darrell Steinberg and other Senate Democratic leaders have said it is a much different degree and much more serious allegation than what Wright has been convicted of.
SHAFER: And the vote on Friday was 28-1 in favor of suspending these three senators. San Diego Republican Joel Anderson was the only senator who voted “no,” and he wanted to see all three Democrats expelled from the senate. He’s what he said:
ANDERSON: So which is it today? More smoke and mirrors? More paid holidays?
DETROW: That’s right, and Calderon was initially knocked off of his committees before he went on paid leave in order to avoid being suspended, and that was the point that Wright went on paid leave as well. The Democratic Senate leaders thought it was an issue of parity if they’re dealing with one person facing legal trouble; the other person facing legal trouble had to face the same punishment, they thought. Steinberg says he would love to expel Calderon and Yee due to these bribery allegations. He asked them both to resign, but he says it wouldn’t be fair to kick them out the Senate before they’ve had their day in court.
SHAFER: And Daniel Newman from MapLight, of course the most incendiary aspects of this are the gunrunning and all that. But there is also this garden-variety bribery and taking money for favors. What struck you about those details of those allegations against Leland Yee this week?
NEWMAN: Well, you’ve got two scandals here. What’s illegal -- the allegations against Senator Yee -- and then there’s also the broader picture of what’s legal and goes on every day in terms of influence-buying. So in this case, Senator Yee is alleged to have taken $10,000 from a campaign contributor, this FBI undercover agent, in exchange for writing a letter to the State Health Department in favor of a contract that this contributor wanted. So that’s illegal to say, “I’ll do this for you if you give me this money.” But what’s not illegal and goes on every day is if you don’t explicitly link those two, and you’re not caught on tape by the FBI. So, for example, if a state senator has someone come to a fundraiser, receives $10,000 and then two weeks later that contributor says, “Oh by the way, there’s this issue before the state Health Department and if you were to do something about it, gosh I’d really like that.”
SHAFER: So it’s just sort of unspoken or understood.
SHAFER: And from what you’ve heard this week, anything we’ve heard Darrell Steinberg talking about what could be done about this -- do you have any sense that this is going to shock the Legislature or the voters, for that matter, into doing something really fundamental here?
NEWMAN: Well, the big picture is that Californians have a very poor opinion of the state Legislature. (In) a PPIC poll this month, for example, only 36 percent of Californians approve of the job the Legislature is doing, and that was before this new news came out. And so Steinberg and other lawmakers who are good-hearted and trying to do the right thing, of course, are concerned that this is casting a pall on the whole institution. But the solutions I hear are focused pretty narrowly on like, "Let’s suspend this person or expel this person." It’s the few bad apples idea, but really it’s a systemic problem that we create these transactional legislators because of the money that people need to get elected.
SHAFER: How would you say, as states go, California ranks? What’s its reputation in terms of transparency, cleanliness in politics, corruption in politics? How do we stack up?
NEWMAN: Well, it’s a mixed bag in terms of transparency and campaign contributions published online. And California’s up there in the top third perhaps, but other states have it better, like Arizona next door, where they have what’s called clean elections system, so you can get public funding to run your campaign. You don’t have to raise money from big donors and there aren’t any donors to be on the hook to.
SHAFER: Scott Detrow, final question. This may or may not blow over between now and November, or other things may sort of transcend it. What’s the bottom-line concern for Democrats going into November because of these three scandals?
DETROW: I think the fact that three different lawmakers are facing different criminal problems and they’re not related. I think that gives Republicans a pretty compelling argument to make to voters saying, "Look, one party has had absolute control over Sacramento and look what’s happened."
SHAFER: All right. Scott Detrow, Sacramento bureau chief, and Daniel Newman president and co-founder of MapLight, thanks so much.
DETROW: Thank you, Scott.
NEWMAN: Thank you.