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California lawmaker indicted on bribery, corruption charges

By Dan Whitcomb and Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California state senator has been indicted on federal charges that he took $100,000 in bribes from a businessman and from undercover FBI agents posing as Hollywood movie executives in exchange for steering legislation in their favor, prosecutors said on Friday.

Democrat Ron Calderon, 56, has agreed to turn himself in on Monday to face two dozen counts of bribery, fraud, money laundering and other charges, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte said at a news conference to announce the charges.

"Senator Calderon is accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and using the powers of his elected office to enrich himself and his brother Tom, rather than for the benefit of the public he was sworn to serve," Birotte said.

State senate leader Darrell Steinberg called on Calderon, a veteran legislator and member of a political dynasty going back several decades in California, to resign or take a leave of absence.

"At a minimum, he should take a complete leave of absence until the criminal proceedings are finished," Steinberg said. "If he does not resign, or take that leave of absence voluntarily, the Senate will seek to suspend him."

Phone calls made to Ron Calderon's offices in the Los Angeles area and in Sacramento were not answered on Friday.

According to a 28-page indictment handed down in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday, Calderon is accused of taking some $100,000 in cash bribes, along with plane trips, golf outings and jobs for his children, in exchange for influencing legislation.

Prosecutors say the lawmaker accepted bribes from Long Beach, California, hospital owner Michael Drobot to preserve a legislative loophole that allowed Drobot to defraud the state's healthcare system out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The senator's brother, Tom Calderon, a former member of the California State Assembly, was also named in the indictment and charged with conspiracy and seven counts of money laundering.

Drobot has agreed to plead guilty to separate federal charges and is cooperating in the case against the Calderon brothers, prosecutors say.

BRIBE FOR BACKING FILM TAX CREDITS

Ron Calderon is also accused of accepting money from undercover FBI agents who he thought worked for an independent Hollywood movie studio in exchange for supporting an expansion of film tax credits in California.

Both Calderons are accused of laundering the bribe money by funneling it through Tom Calderon's consulting firm, Californians for Diversity.

Tom Calderon, 59, pleaded not guilty during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Friday. His defense attorney, Shepard Kopp, said that he "categorically denies" the charges against him.

"This is direct payback by the government for Ron Calderon refusing to wear a wire and cooperate with the government's investigation," Kopp said. He declined to elaborate.

In June, FBI agents raided the Sacramento offices of the senator and the California legislature's Latino Caucus, where he was a member of the executive board.

At the time, high-profile Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos told the Sacramento Bee newspaper that prosecutors had no case against Calderon and should be "ashamed of themselves" because, he believed, they had leaked word of the raid to the media.

Geragos could not be reached for comment on Friday and his office declined to say if he was still representing Calderon.

In November, Calderon was removed from the board of the Latino Caucus and from his legislative committee assignments by his colleagues because of the investigation.

If convicted at trial, Ron Calderon, who also faces tax fraud charges, could face a statutory maximum of nearly 400 years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines typically call for much less time. Tom Calderon could face a maximum of 160 years behind bars.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Dana Feldman; editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse, David Gregorio and Mohammad Zargham)

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