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Ex-state Senator Ron Calderon enters guilty plea in bribery case

Former California state Senator Ron Calderon.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Former California state Sen. Ron Calderon.

Former state Sen. Ron Calderon pleaded guilty to mail fraud Tuesday afternoon in a bribery case that sullied the reputation of the Legislature and helped win the recent passage of a ballot measure on suspending lawmakers without pay for wrongdoing.

The plea, part of a deal with prosecutors announced last week, went before federal Judge Christina Snyder in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

Snyder accepted the plea and set a sentencing date for Sept. 19. 

As part of the agreement, Calderon admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for supporting certain pieces of legislation. Prosecutors dropped more than 20 other charges in exchange for the agreement. 

The deal spares Calderon from a trial that had been scheduled for next month and could lead to a lighter sentence for the Montebello lawmaker, who served in the Senate and Assembly for a dozen years. Prosecutors have said they’ll ask for no more than 70 months in prison, far less than the maximum 20 years that is possible.

The court is not bound by the prosecutors' sentencing recommendation. 

In court, Snyder asked Mark Geragos, Calderon's attorney, whether the plea agreement is in his client's best interest.

“It’s definitely in his best interest…I do have issues with whether it’s in the interest of justice,” Geragos said. The attorney said outside of court that the government has too much power and can bring an unlimited number of charges against a defendant.

But given his client's age, he said the plea offer wasn't one they could pass on.

"When you're 58 and you're facing basically 200 some odd years, are you going to roll the dice or are you going to take basically an offer that you can't refuse?" Geragos said.

U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker countered that she believes the reason Calderon accepted the plea agreement was because he had no defense to pursue.

"If he had a defense, he would have presented it," she said. She added that the deal avoids a lengthy trial and allows her to focus her legal resources elsewhere.

According to the plea agreement, Calderon backed legislation that the government said helped a hospital owner maintain a massive health-care fraud scheme. In exchange, the hospital owner paid $30,000 to Calderon's son for three summers of work, the plea agreement stated.

The law in question was repealed in 2013, and the hospital owner was prosecuted, the Associated Press reported.

Calderon also acknowledged taking money from an undercover FBI agent who posed as an associate of a Los Angeles movie studio. He sought Calderon's help promoting an unsuccessful bill that would have expanded tax credits for the film industry. In exchange, Calderon accepted $12,000 worth of trips to Las Vegas and a $25,000 payment to a bank account belonging to his brother's consulting company, according to the plea agreement.

The undercover agent also paid Calderon's daughter $3,000 a month for work she didn't do and a $5,000 payment toward his son's college tuition, the plea agreement said.

Calderon's brother, former state Assemblyman Thomas Calderon, also accepted a plea agreement for money laundering earlier this month. The back-to-back plea deals will settle the corruption case, which was filed against Ron Calderon back in 2014.

This story has been updated.