Morain: The two faces of the dark side of political money

  • State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, right, holds a brief news conference during first appearance at the Capitol Monday June 10, 2013, since the FBI raided his Sacramento offices last week. Calderon was a no-show last week with an unexcused absence after at least a half-dozen FBI agents carted boxes from his Sacramento offices following a more than six-hour search Tuesday. Calderon did not answer any questions and no details has been given for the search and not charges have been filed. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The U.S. Supreme Court says money is speech. It has been especially foul-mouthed around here lately.

Sen. Ron Calderon, the Montebello Democrat who long has used campaign money to pay for his gluttonous lifestyle, now faces allegations of serious wrongdoing, based on the FBI search warrant affidavit that Al Jazeera America obtained last week and posted on its website.

The previous week, the California Fair Political Practices Commission poked at campaign organizations run by political operatives who spend millions on advertising, while cloaking themselves as nonprofit social welfare corporations and hiding the donors who fund them.

The cases are very different. But they represent different facets of dark sides of politics. One is legal, generally. A jury would have to decide whether the other one is or isn't.

The case against the nonprofits grabbed attention nationally because the FPPC focused on the secretive network headed by brothers David and Charles Koch, the oil billionaires who help fund many of the most conservative campaigns and causes.

It involved vast sums, upward of $28 million. Of that, $15 million was spent on California campaigns, mostly in a failed attempt to help win passage of Proposition 32, the initiative on last November's ballot that would have restricted labor's ability to raise campaign money.

Sacramento operatives Tony Russo and Jeff Miller explicitly promised donors that they would protect them against the unpleasantness of public disclosure. To hide their identities, Miller and Russo used a nonprofit organization in Virginia, which used a nonprofit in Phoenix, which used nonprofits in Iowa and in Phoenix.

In the end, the FPPC and the attorney general concluded that the two Phoenix groups should have disclosed more fully their role in delivering the money to the California campaign committee working on Proposition 32. For that, they paid a combined $1 million penalty. The settlement also says the violation was "inadvertent or at worst negligent." The U.S. Supreme Court long ago concluded people can spend money to advance their arguments. It's a First Amendment right, though nonprofits increasingly abuse the law by depriving the public of the right to know who funds the ads they see during campaign season.

Calderon is a piker by comparison, but his potential violations could have far more severe consequences. He supposedly took $88,000 in bribes, much of it from undercover FBI agents he thought were Los Angeles studio executives, according to the affidavit that an FBI agent wrote to get a warrant to search his Capitol office in June.

A portly man, Calderon spends heavily at Capitol-area restaurants and fancies himself a player, living large by using the money he raises from donors. Most of the donors have bills pending before his various committees. All that is legal. The affidavit describes episodes that are not.

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