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California Democrats, beset by two scandals, propose ethics reforms

California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) speaks to reporters after Governor Jerry Brown delivered his State
California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) speaks to reporters after Governor Jerry Brown delivered his State

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Democrats, whose supermajority in the state legislature was effectively lost after two party lawmakers were either indicted or convicted of criminal wrongdoing, proposed a sweeping package of ethics reforms on Thursday.

The proposal comes against a backdrop of renewed focus on ethics in the legislature of the most populous U.S. state after California state Senator Ron Calderon was indicted on corruption charges last month, and fellow state Senator Roderick Wright was convicted of voter fraud and perjury.

The criminal proceedings add to concerns that surfaced earlier this year when the California Fair Political Practices Commission sent warning letters to elected officials saying fundraising parties thrown for several lawmakers and the governor by a prominent lobbyist were in fact illegal.

"The good legislative work that we do is only as good as the public's perception and trust in the legislature," Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg told a news conference, announcing the legislation.

The legislation proposed on Thursday would ban elected officials in California from accepting any gifts from lobbyists and would reduce the value of gifts that could be accepted from other sources. It would also ban fundraisers at lobbyists' homes.

The proposal would also expressly forbid officials from accepting certain types of gifts that have nothing to do with lawmaking, including tickets for theme parks and professional sporting events, spa and golf trips or cash and gift cards from anyone, whether or not that person is a lobbyist.

A spokesman for Republican leader Bob Huff said the reforms seemed appropriate, but that his party had not been included in the process of developing them and so had not yet examined the proposed language closely.

CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

Calderon, part of a decades-old California political dynasty, surrendered to authorities last week to face two dozen counts of bribery, fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. On Monday, he said he would take a leave of absence from the legislature while court proceedings resulting from a federal corruption indictment take place in Los Angeles.

A week earlier, Senator Roderick Wright also took a leave of absence linked to his conviction in January on eight counts of voter fraud and perjury after prosecutors said he did not live in the Southern California district that he sought to represent in the Senate.

Wright has asked the judge in his trial to reject the jury's verdict, saying California's law on where lawmakers must live is too vague.

Both men will be paid while on leave. But the absence of the two lawmakers means that Democrats have effectively lost their two-thirds majority in the state Senate, necessary to raise taxes, sell bonds or put certain measures before voters.

However, because they are leave and have not been expelled or forced to resign from the Senate, it would theoretically be possible for one or the other to return for key votes.

Steinberg, who granted paid leaves of absence to both men and has refused to consider a Republican motion to expel them, has promised that this will not happen, calling the idea ridiculous and insulting.

Several Republicans, deeply skeptical that Democrats will not bring the two back, have tried twice to call for the expulsion of the two senators.

But Steinberg, who controls what legislation gets to the Senate floor, used a procedural move to send their resolution to the rules committee, which he chairs. The proposal was quashed a second time on Wednesday, when Steinberg declined to bring it up in the committee.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and G Crosse)

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