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Calderon Takes Leave to Defend Himself Against Corruption Charges

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(FOX 11/ CNS) - Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, said today he will be taking a voluntary leave of absence from the Legislature while he defends himself from federal charges of accepting more than $100,000 in cash bribes, as well as plane trips and dinners, in exchange for supporting legislation.

The 56-year-old lawmaker cited the "nature and complexity" of the charges in announcing what he expects to be "a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the (legislative) session in August."

"I will take this time to focus on fighting these charges," Calderon said in a statement. "I do not want to distract from the important work of the Senate and my colleagues on serious issues affecting my constituents and the people of California."

He emphasized that "This is not a resignation since I still have my day in court."

Calderon pleaded not guilty last week to 24 counts of federal mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, bribery, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and aiding in the filing of false tax returns.

A federal magistrate judge ordered him to surrender his passport and allowed his release on a $50,000 bond, signed by his wife. A tentative trial date was set for April 22.

Calderon's 59-year-old brother, Tom, has also pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and seven counts of money laundering for allegedly funneling bribe money through a nonprofit group and consulting company he operates. He was freed on a $25,000 bond.

According to a grand jury indictment, Ron Calderon solicited and accepted benefits, such as employment for his son, trips on privately charted airplanes, golf at exclusive, high-end golf resorts and meals at expensive restaurants, from Michael D. Drobot, the former owner of Pacific Hospital of Long Beach. The alleged bribes were offered in exchange for the senator's support of legislation that would delay or limit changes in California's workers' compensation laws, according to the indictment.

Drobot, 69, of Corona del Mar, was charged in a separate case with running a health care fraud scheme that federal prosecutors said involved millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks in exchange for referrals of thousands of patients who underwent spinal surgeries. Those operations led to more than $500 million in bills being fraudulently submitted to the state workers' compensation system, prosecutors said.

Drobot has agreed to plead guilty to two counts and faces up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Ron Calderon is also alleged to have taken bribes from two undercover FBI agents posing as film producers in a separate scheme to affect legislation to extend film-industry tax credits.

At one point in the investigation, prosecutors alleged, at least one cash bribe exchanged hands.

In that case, the senator is alleged to have solicited and accepted trips to Las Vegas, meals and employment for his daughter "with the understanding that such benefits were to influence" official acts in connection with the film tax credit. Prosecutors said Calderon agreed to support the film tax legislation in exchange for his daughter being paid $3,000 a month -- a total of nearly $40,000 -- for a job in which she performed no work.

Calderon also allegedly solicited a $5,000 payment for his son's college tuition and $25,000 for Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit political group run by Tom Calderon.

According to prosecutors, the Calderons funneled money through Californians for Diversity and Tom Calderon's consulting firm, and some of the cash went to Ron Calderon and his daughter.

The Calderon brothers face multiple years in federal prison if convicted of all charges, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.Ron Calderon was stripped of his Senate committee assignments as a result of the federal probe.

Another local lawmaker -- Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood -- has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the Senate while he awaits sentencing on five counts of voter fraud, two counts of perjury and one count of filing a false declaration of candidacy.

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