SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — State senators participated in a two-hour ethics training session Wednesday, the fallout from a series of legal cases involving Democratic lawmakers this year that have damaged the Legislature’s image.
Two lawmakers have been charged with corruption and bribery, while a third was convicted for perjury and voter fraud.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg canceled committee hearings and ordered lawmakers and their top aides to devote the day to ethics seminars at a state library building and inside the Capitol. The purpose of the closed-door sessions was to reflect on the Legislature’s current practices and prevent lawmakers and staff from putting themselves in compromising situations, the Sacramento Democrat said.
“We all have to look inside and ask ourselves, `How can we earn the public trust? How can we repair some of the damage that has been wrought as a result of recent events?”‘ Steinberg told reporters after Wednesday’s training.
Earlier this month, the Senate suspended Sens. Ronald Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco after they were indicted on federal criminal charges. Calderon is accused of accepting $100,000 in bribes for friends and family in exchange for influencing legislation, and Yee was charged with accepting bribes and orchestrating weapons trafficking to help pay off campaign debts.
Both pleaded not guilty. A third Democrat, Sen. Rod Wright, also was suspended after being convicted earlier this year of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County. His sentencing is scheduled for next month.
Wednesday’s schedule included a presentation about creating a culture of ethics by Scott Raecker, chief executive of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and executive director of Character Counts In Iowa, a nonprofit housed at Drake University.
That was followed by a panel discussion led by three election and campaign attorneys, including Democratic lawyer Lance Olson, Republican lawyer Chuck Bell and former assistant U.S. Attorney John Panneton. Senators and staff were expected to be presented with hypothetical scenarios on ethical and legal issues.
Steinberg said it is unlikely such training would have prevented the criminal charges. However, he said there needs to be a discussion about separating campaigning from policymaking, even though money is ingrained in politics.
“While there is no ethics class that teaches the dangers of gun-running or taking money in an envelope, that’s not really what this session was about,” Steinberg said. “It was more about the subtle and sometimes insidious impacts of all the money that exists in politics.”
For example, he said senators are expected to stop themselves from having a conversation about pending legislation whether they’re attending a small or large campaign event.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff agreed Wednesday’s session was important as a way to maintain the Senate’s integrity. The Assembly did not participate. Huff said senators receive similar training every two years.
Senators leaving the session described it as a helpful reminder but said they didn’t learn anything new. All senators attended except Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who was out sick, and Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, whose flight was canceled, according to Steinberg’s office.
“I’d call it more of a refresher,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. “The important thing is to stay focused on your values.”
Wednesday’s ethics training was the latest effort by Steinberg to distance lawmakers from the criminal charges and repair the Senate’s reputation.
He canceled a fundraiser to be held at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego earlier this month, saying it would be inappropriate in the wake of the charges. The Senate also erased the names and online archives of the three suspended lawmakers.
Lawmakers also have proposed various bills to try to restore public trust in government by untangling the web of money and politics.
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