SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A series of scandals that has tarnished the integrity of the state Legislature has prompted a wave of proposals aimed at strengthening political ethics and reforming laws governing campaign contributions.
So far this year, a prominent lobbyist was slapped with a record fine for illegally throwing lavish fundraisers for top elected officials at his home, Democratic Sen. Rod Wright was convicted for lying about living inside his district, and federal corruption charges have been filed against two other Democrats, Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco.
"The reason there's indictments, the reason there's trials is because the system is working," said state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who is one of several contenders for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections and campaign fundraising. "But clearly there is more we can do to minimize the likelihood of this kind of bad behavior taking place to begin with."
He is among myriad lawmakers and candidates trying to restore public trust in government by untangling the web of money and politics and strengthening oversight.
Freshman Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, released a political reform package in February following the lobbying fine, while a task force of Senate Democrats led by Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens proposed ethics bills in March after Calderon's indictment.
Bowing to the additional scrutiny of lawmakers, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg cancelled a golfing fundraiser in San Diego this weekend and announced plans for an office-by-office ethics review in the Senate.
But after the arrest of Yee, who was indicted last week for taking bribes and conspiring to import arms from Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines, Steinberg conceded that even new laws have their limits.
"I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality or the danger of gun-running or other such sordid activities," he said before announcing the ethics review.
Other proposals seek to close loopholes that allowed for abuses.
Lobbyist Kevin Sloat's firm paid $133,500 in part for hosting fundraisers that exceeded the $500 budget allowed by law for Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and top legislative leaders of both political parties at his Sacramento home. The limit would be eliminated and the practice banned altogether under SB1441 by the ethics task force and AB1673 by Garcia, which passed a committee vote last week.
Sloat's firm also was fined for illegally giving two Republican assemblymen and a staffer gifts far above the $10-a-month limit, including tickets to 49ers and NBA games. Undercover federal agents posing as Hollywood executives say they wined and dined Calderon numerous times to curry favor. SB1443 from the Senate ethics task force would cut in half an overall $440 gift limit while banning all presents from lobbyists as well as the most eyebrow-raising perks for state officials, such as massages and tickets to Disneyland.
Critics say the Senate's response has been too little, too late.
"I believe it falls woefully short of being meaningful," said Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine, who has called for the expulsion of the suspended senators and likened their punishment to a paid vacation.
Steinberg, the Senate leader, wants to present the salary issue to voters with SCA17, a constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to withhold pay from suspended lawmakers in order to avoid expelling members who are presumed innocent until found guilty.
Others say lawmakers are inherently conflicted when it comes to addressing wrongdoing among their ranks.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, who leads a Senate ethics commission tasked with internal investigations, is floating the idea of an ethics ombudsman to handle complaints.
Secretary of state candidates Derek Cressman, a Democrat, and Pete Peterson, a Republican, say a new or existing independent commission should make recommendations to the Assembly and Senate about the pay and punishment for lawmakers accused of corruption.
Good-government reformers say the bigger picture behind the ethics turmoil is the need for politicians to raise campaign money for re-election or when seeking higher office.
"Oftentimes what we'll see is sort of reactionary legislation to a particular scandal of the day," said Sarah Swanbeck, policy and legislative affairs advocate at Common Cause, where Cressman worked before embarking on his run for secretary of state.
Improving transparency has emerged as a top issue in the now-magnified race for secretary of state, which included Yee as a leading candidate until his arrest.
Padilla, who has emerged as the Democratic front-runner after Yee dropped out, is calling for a ban on fundraising during the last 100 days of a legislative session and a week after it ends with SB1101. His opponents say his proposal falls short and call for a total fundraising blackout during the session, which Padilla says is too restrictive given the length of the nine-month session and the potential for court challenges.
"If you were to take all the reform proposals out of the Legislature and put them in one place, they would add up to almost one complete fig leaf," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist and Fair Political Practices Commission chairman who is running for secretary of state as an independent.
He said he would use the position as a bully pulpit to call for more ethics reforms and increased funding for enforcement.
Whatever the fate of this year's bills, Gary Winuk, California's chief ethics watchdog at the Fair Political Practice Commission, said questions about what behavior is legal and ethical are perennial.
"It's constantly a game, if you will, to try and balance the people who do want to follow the law versus the people who try and exploit the loopholes," he said.