Southern California has dozens of small public agencies that don’t get much attention. The Central Basin Municipal Water District is one of them, but it made headlines last month after getting a federal subpoena in connection with an investigation into State Senator Ron Calderon.
Federal officials have also sought to speak with his brother, political consultant Tom Calderon, who shares a long relationship with the Commerce-based water agency.
Tom Calderon left the state Assembly just over a decade ago and started a political consulting business. One of his first clients was the Central Basin District, which serves a broad expanse of Southeast L.A. County. Over the past several years, Calderon donated $26,000 to board candidates at the district.
"Most people give contributions, not because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because they think there is some way that they can benefit from this candidate being in public office," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election law and governance issues.
Over a 10-year period, the Central Basin District paid Calderon nearly $1 million to build relationships with state and federal politicians, develop community outreach strategies, and give general guidance to the district’s leaders. Contracts from those years describe Calderon as providing "valuable insight and guidance." At the same time, he was donating to board members who approved his lucrative contracts — which is legal.
"The link isn’t always that direct, but I think the question is always the same," Levinson said. "Are contributions really anything more than legalized bribery?”
(Because of the ongoing investigation, none of the district’s board members would comment for this story. Neither would Tom Calderon.)
In 2012, two new board members, James Roybal and Leticia Vasquez, were elected as reform candidates. Early this year the board voted to terminate the district’s consulting contracts —including Calderon’s.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which works to make public officials and institutions accountable and responsive to citizens, said the Central Basin's policy is not an anomaly.
"Sadly, it’s pretty rare to have a bidder ban," Feng said. "That’s what would prevent a contribution from a company or individual who is seeking a contract from that city agency. We think it’s actually very common sense, but only a few cities have got it."
The City of Los Angles has such a policy. And, as it turns out, the Central Basin District recently revised its code of conduct. It now states companies and individuals cannot donate to board members while their contracts are in the approval process. Anyone doing business with the district is also prohibited from giving in the months just before and after an election.
"It’s intended to prevent sense of favoritism or sense that someone’s voting for a particular project because they are getting donations from a particular vendor," said Joseph Legaspi, interim public affairs manager at Central Basin.
For entities that operate largely outside the public eye, Feng says the public can help force government to become transparent and accountable. She notes that the state controller has started posting the salaries of public employees.
"Here, I think it’s really a matter of public pressure and I think it is possible," Feng said. "We saw what happened so quickly after the Bell scandal. And if the public expresses a desire for it, I think often times our elected officials are responsive."
But small cities and agencies are often left to police themselves. At Central Basin, suspected violations of the district’s code of conduct are reported to the board’s two-member Ethics Committee. It’s up to them to report serious violations to the Fair Political Practices Commission or the District Attorney’s Office.
"If someone had felt that a member of the Central Basin board of directors had not been compliant with the code of conduct, they do have the opportunity to raise that issue with the district’s Ethics Committee," Legaspi said.
In recent years, there have been no complaints taken to the Ethics Committee that were found to be valid or worthy of further investigation, according to Legaspi. The committee’s members include Phillip Hawkins, who last year was elected to his fourth term on the Water District board. Six days before the election, Hawkins received a donation that made up one-fourth of all the money he raised. It was $10,000 — and it came from Tom Calderon.