Opinion

Dan Walters: Senate’s treatment of two senators continues erratic pattern

dwalters@sacbee.comFebruary 3, 2014 

The state Senate’s disparate treatment of two Democratic senators under fire for their political ethics continues an erratic, irrational pattern.

When it was revealed that Sen. Ron Calderon was under federal investigation for financial dealings, Senate leaders, especially President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, were sharply critical and stripped him of committee positions.

But when Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of eight felony charges, including perjury, for concealing that his true residence was outside his Southern California district, Steinberg et al. were sympathetic.

Steinberg contended, with technical legal reasoning, that Wright wasn’t officially guilty yet because the judge had yet to affirm the verdict.

Wright voluntarily stepped down from his committee chairmanships, but that was it.

“I evaluate each situation on its merits,” Steinberg said. “The underlying allegations (on Calderon) go to the very heart of what we do inside of these chambers, and inside this Capitol.”

His rationalization falls short on several levels, beginning with its implication that one senator’s eight felony convictions of lying about his residence are somehow less serious than the actions of another senator who has yet to be charged with or convicted of anything.

The Legislature each year dictates behavior for 38 million Californians that violate the personal preferences of many who must comply or face legal consequences. But Steinberg is sending the message that when it comes to behavior of politicians, the standards are, shall we say, flexible.

That, in fact, is the history of the Legislature’s self-policing of ethics.

When, for instance, Republican Sen. John Schmitz, in a 1982 news release, used what were perceived to be derogatory terms to describe abortion-rights advocates, he lost a subsequent defamation lawsuit and was hit with a $20,000 judgment.

The Senate refused to pay the $20,000, saying it would be improper, and issued a public reprimand of his conduct.

Two decades later, however, the Senate had to pay $117,000 to a legislative employee who had accused Sen. Richard Polanco of making repeated sexual advances toward her but took absolutely no ethics action against him.

That stood in sharp contrast to what had happened a few years earlier in the Assembly, when Republican Assemblyman Mickey Conroy was accused of similarly boorish conduct toward one of his female aides. He was formally reprimanded by the house, but Assembly members who had demanded action against him and later became senators didn’t say a word about the kid-gloves treatment of Polanco.

There are numerous other examples one could cite of the Legislature’s erratic – and often partisan – response to ethics issues.

That’s what evaluating “each situation on its merits” has meant in the past and apparently means now.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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