Op Ed: Time to Expel Senators Tainted by Corruption


3senatorsBy Fred Keeley
Special to Calbuzz

Imagine that you are an employee working in the food mart of the corner gas station.  One night, you’re arrested for driving under the influence. You show up for work the next day, and your employer fires you for getting arrested.

Your due process rights for the drunken driving charge are limited to the criminal charge, not to whether or not your employer can fire you for getting arrested. People can disagree about the fairness of the law, but that’s the law.

Now, imagine that you are a state senator and that you have been charged, indicted, arrested and/or convicted of crimes that relate directly to your job as a legislator.  Can you be “fired” by the Senate? Yes.

corruptionOur state constitution says, “Each house shall judge the qualifications and elections of its Members and, by roll call vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership concurring, may expel a Member.”

After three state senators [Democrats Ron Calderon, Rod Wright and Leland Yee], have, in 2014, been either charged, indicted, arrested, tried and/or convicted of felonies directly associated with the performance of their official duties, the question arises as to the proper reaction of the state Senate itself.  To answer that, let’s look at another political scandal, not so long ago.

In 2000, then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush [a Republican] resigned his statewide constitutional office, following hearings by the [Democratically controlled] state Assembly, because of charges that he had  misdirected millions of dollars of insurance settlement funds meant to compensate victims of the Northridge Earthquake into funds that assisted his political ambitions.

quackenbushQuackenbush resigned ahead of an all-but-certain impeachment in the Assembly and a trial and conviction in the Senate. My role in all that was to manage the non-partisan Assembly hearings (I represented the Monterey Bay area in the Assembly from 1996 through 2002).

In the case of Quackenbush, there was no call in the Legislature for him to take a paid vacation or to wait until he had been convicted in a court of law and his appeals were exhausted. There was no argument that he had a right to due process in the criminal matters first that would prevent the Legislature from investigating, impeaching or convicting him.

Quackenbush was a constitutional officer, not a state senator, but the analogy is apt. There is no question about whether the state Senate must wait for a conviction and appeals before it can expel a member. There is only the question of whether the state Senate can muster the backbone to expel the three members who have rained disgust and dishonor on the body that voters rely on to make our laws, pass a budget and serve as a check and balance to the extensive powers of the governor.

We have seen a stream of newspaper articles, blogs, editorials, op-ed pieces and general conversation about the three state senators involved in this swirl of unethical and, perhaps, criminal behavior, and what should be done about it. Some argue the weak case that the state senate has done the right thing to suspend them with pay and not take stronger action unless and until they are convicted and sentenced.

fred keeley_0102They are wrong.

Our democracy is strong but it needs the constant trust and confidence of the electorate that their representatives represent the citizenry fairly and honestly.

A paid vacation for three disgraced state senators will not do it.  Immediate expulsion will.

Fred Keeley, a liberal Democrat, is the elected Treasurer of  Santa Cruz County of Santa.  He served in the California State Assembly (1996-2002) during which time he led the Assembly’s hearings into the actions of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar sqrjn says:

    Amen. But what I don’t understand is why it takes backbone to make a decision like that? Shouldn’t it be opposite? I would think that of those citizens who are paying attention the vast majority would want the bums out. Do the legislators fear retaliation if the prosecutions fail and/or the suspects get back in office? Is it that the party Dems are just so overwhelmingly strong? Are they all so crooked that the fear stones/glass houses. It just doesn’t make sense, the Senate should full of sanctimonious moral outrage with both sides rushing to be seen as the ones throwing these guys under a bus.

  2. avatar gdewar says:

    Hooray for Fred for saying what most of us have been thinking. Dump these clowns out of the Senate. People will have more respect for the institution if it cleans up its messes quickly and allows us to move on.

    In particular, Leland Yee is a useless “senator” because his district no longer exists. There is nothing to be lost by booting him out. The people in his former district are now represented by other Senators anyway, so this should be a no brainer.

  3. avatar ReilleyFan says:

    Fortunately, the CA Labor Code prohibits ANYONE from being fired for just an arrest – public or private sector.

    If you are convicted, you can be terminated.

    If your rights are violated in this regard you’d have to hire an attorney and sue so most people dont even if they can.

    • avatar cawaterguy says:

      Good luck suing for enforcement of that statute is any setting.

      In any case, pretty sure the political questions doctrine would render any appeal of a expulsion nonjusticiable i.e. Nixon v. US (1993)

      And besides, as Keeley states, we’re not talking about the court of law, we’re talking about the court of public opinion.

  4. avatar cawaterguy says:

    The decisions to allow Yee to take a paid suspension, Calderon to serve under indictment, and Wright to serve even after conviction, altogether are not only just eliminating whatever support is left for the Legislature, but more importantly, they’re deeply damaging the Democratic brand in CA. CA’s too blue for any tectonic shifts, but Dems should bear in mind that recruiting support for bonds, taxes, new programs, is made significantly harder when you give the public the perception that new money for government is going into the hands of swindlers.

    The Dems are shooting themselves in the foot and further ensuring that high speed rail, BDCP, and carbon markets, will never come to fruition.

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