Corruption in Sacramento

The majority of Californians no longer held the state legislature in high esteem well beforethe serious allegations of corruption and lies became known against three senatorswho are nowsuspended from their dutiespending decisions in their cases.

The criminal cases against Democratic senators Ron Calderón, Leland Yee and Rod Wright are different, but each in its own way represents a betrayal of the trust placed by voters in their elected officials. Calderón and Yee allegedly accepted bribes related to pending legislation, and Wright lied about his place of residence.

To counteract the bad impression of these scandals, a few days ago, the State Senateconducteda two-hour training session to remind its members about the distance that must be maintained between money received at campaign events and discussions of pending legislation. There is also a package of laws cutting the gifts lawmakers can receive and imposing bans for lobbyists.

The legislative proposal is considered the most significant reform in 20 years, but it will hardly resolve problems of this type unless the punishment makes an example of the perpetrator. In many cases, campaigns willfully break election laws because afterwards they can pay a fine. That attitude would change if politicians who win elections that way had their victories overturned rather than being sent a bill, which isn’t even paid out of their own pocket.

The issue of politicians’ dishonesty runs deeper than a seminar or laws that fail to reach the root of the problem. Many of them are experts at eluding the spirit of the law. They may not commit crimes like those the three senators are accused of, but their ethics are overly flexible.

For lawmakers to regain credibilityin the eyes of voters, substantive, well-considered measures are needed rather than visceral reactions aimed at controlling the spin of the moment.