Last summer, two men sat at Dal Rae, a swank throwback to 1950s dining elegance in Pico Rivera, having a high-level movie-biz meeting far from Hollywood gossips, except that one of them was surreptitiously taping the entire thing.
The conversation turned from films to politics — specifically, to the tax credit California offers a lucky few independent filmmakers whose budgets exceed $1 million.
"There might be a play, you know, to lower, to lower the tax credit [qualification threshold], uh, for movies," the corpulent, graying man told the slick, trim one.
California state Senator Ronald Calderon, 56, suggested such a play was within his power, perhaps not to lower the threshold to $500,000, as his companion hoped, but at least get it down to $750,000.
Calderon, after all, had been elevated to the California Film Commission and named chair of the Senate's select committee on film and TV by powerful Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg. The former real estate agent and mortgage banker was a fulcrum of power in the state's film industry. In 2009, Calderon carried the bill that created the tax credit intended to slow "runaway production."
The Montebello Democrat also is a member of one of Southern California's most powerful political families. The Calderons rule in the working-class neighborhoods of Southeast L.A., a dominion that includes scandal-plagued Bell. Ronald and his older brothers, Charles and Thomas, have been heavyweights in state government for years, flaunting their taste for expensive cigars, decadent meals and luxury outings at golf resorts — paid for with political contributions.
At Dal Rae, the senator explained the complications he faced in lowering the tax-credit threshold: "It's a matter of where. .... What negotiating position I put myself in. ... Certain industries might push back."
Rocky Patel wanted to tweak the threshold — a potential investor in Florida insisted on seeing such legislation advance before joining his film venture.
"It's all about creating jobs, keeping the movie industry here in California, right?" Calderon asked.
But Patel wasn't an owner of United Pacific Studios, as he claimed, or even in the movie business. In June his actual colleagues — FBI agents — raided Ron Calderon's Sacramento office.
Speculation raced through the Statehouse. Then, on Oct. 30, Al Jazeera America published a heavily blacked-out, 124-page affidavit that documented the FBI's multiyear investigations into corruption in the cash contribution–driven, expense account–oiled state Capitol.
The leaked document, filed under seal in support of the FBI's search warrant, detailed the chat between the two men at the Pico Rivera restaurant, and the evolving relationship that led to serious horse-trading: Calderon and Patel ultimately swapped cash, jobs (Patel's girlfriend, an FBI agent posing as a struggling model, was hired as a state Senate staffer), legislative favors and top-drawer entertainment. At one point, Calderon emailed Patel pictures of himself taken with rappers Nelly and T.I. at a Las Vegas nightclub — after Patel paid $4,000 for the senator's VIP table there.
In all, Calderon received about $60,000 from Patel, almost half in the form of his $3,000 monthly payments to Calderon's daughter Jessica — for a job at Patel's film studio that involved no duties. Calderon repeatedly asked Patel to give his daughter something to do, but Patel offered her no work and the Calderons maintained the arrangement. Calderon took another $28,000 from Michael Drobot, owner of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach, according to the affidavit.
The Calderon investigation began in 2007 when the Fair Political Practices Commission tipped off federal authorities about a $1 million payment from Drobot to Ron's brother Tom Calderon, made after Tom left his seat in the California Assembly. "It was suspected that this exceptionally large and unusual payment might evidence that THOMAS CALDERON was using his brothers' political influence to favor DROBOT in return for monetary compensation, that is, a bribe," the affidavit reads.
Ron Calderon has been sucked into a media and political firestorm. It's consuming his political clan, tarnishing his allies in L.A. — including city councilmen José Huizar and Gil Cedillo — and has mired Calderon's former cheerleader, Steinberg, in a PR nightmare.
According to the leaked transcript, on Nov. 2, 2012, Calderon described several bank accounts into which Patel could transfer him cash — including one belonging to a "Los Angeles City Councilman." Media are striving to identify that councilman.
That brief exchange extended the scandal's tentacles to Los Angeles City Hall and "cast a shadow over the whole body," City Councilman Bernard Parks, L.A.'s former chief of police, says. "It's validating the suspicions of people who believe that this is going on the whole time."
In a recent phenomenon dubbed "Sacramento South," termed-out legislators have flooded L.A. to run for City Council. Today, seven of 15 councilmembers are former legislators. All were Ron Calderon's colleagues.