California state Sen. Ron Calderon
In 2011, L.A. Weekly dubbed brothers Ron and Charles Calderon, then a California state senator and the assembly majority leader, respectively, the “worst legislators in California” for authoring “sponsored” laws they didn’t write—then taking serious money from the special interest groups that actually wrote them.
The Calderons insisted they weren’t selling laws. After all, of the avalanche of about 1,000 new bills introduced annually in the state, the San Jose Mercury News found that 39 percent are ghostwritten by groups seeking to benefit—environmentalists, manufacturers, municipalities. They’re successful too: From 2007 to 2008, sponsored bills composed 60 percent of those the governor signed into law. The Sacramento press corps largely treats “sponsored” bills as non-news. After all, almost all legislators do it.
But few legislators, we hope, do it like Ron Calderon. In February, he and a third brother, former assemblyman Tom Calderon, were indicted for corruption. Ron allegedly took $28,000 in bribes to preserve a flawed state law that was being milked for millions of dollars by a corrupt hospital executive. He was also charged with selling laws after taking $88,000 in bribes from a “film executive” who—whoops—was an undercover FBI agent. (Ron has been suspended from the legislature.)
And what of the other Calderon brother, Charles? In mid-May, the Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsed him for a judgeship. It didn’t mention his history of taking gobs of cash from those whose custom laws he’d enabled or the fact that he’d paid his son $40,000 in campaign funds for doing basically nothing. Voters weren’t about to side with the Times and cheer on Charles. Recently they elected his opponent with 66 percent of the vote. (Jill Stewart, L.A. Weekly)
California state Sen. Leland Yee
Where to begin with Leland Yee? The longtime San Francisco-area pol, a Democrat, was indicted in March for trading an official proclamation for $6,800 in cash from an undercover FBI agent, as well as brokering a meeting between a prospective donor and his fellow legislators in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in “donations” well in excess of federal campaign limits. But that’s not even the good stuff. The good stuff involves international arms dealing and a codefendant named Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow.
Chow, we learned from court documents, is a convicted felon once involved with everything from dealing heroin to pimping underage girls. But even while being held up as a model of rehabilitation by no less than U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Chow led an international crime syndicate involved with murder for hire, money laundering and drug and gun trafficking, prosecutors allege.
When an FBI agent pretending to be part of Chow’s gang approached Yee for help with obtaining missiles and other weapons, the state senator didn’t just agree to help. Prosecutors allege he also walked the agent through the steps to acquire them from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines.
There’s much, much more to the story, but here’s probably a good place to end when it comes to Yee: When this onetime rising star in the California Democratic Party failed to resign his seat, fellow senators voted to suspend him with pay. And though those pesky criminal charges forced Yee to abandon his run for California secretary of state, it was too late to change the ballots, and the flood of bad publicity around his name didn’t seem to matter much to voters—more than a half-million Californians still backed him.
The would-be arms dealer who allegedly exchanged political favors for money beat out five other candidates. (Sarah Fenske, L.A. Weekly)
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr
Why did Mark Darr get elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas in 2010? Because there was an “R” after his name in an anti-Obama tidal wave.
The number two officer in the Razorback State is as useless as teats on a boar hog. Because of a weird provision in the 1874 Arkansas Constitution, he may preside over sessions of the state Senate and act as executive when the governor leaves the state.
While in office doing nothing, Darr glad-handed, went to rodeos and made plans to run for Congress. But his congressional campaign collapsed days after it began when news broke that he had been cheating on his campaign finance reports. After the election for lieutenant governor was over, he continued raising money and spending it on himself and family, from gasoline to hotel rooms to clothing. A deeper look revealed he had also cheated on his public expense account. Nobody should have been surprised. He had run a family pizza business into the ground and got upside down on his home mortgage, among other personal missteps. After ignoring months of bipartisan calls to step down—at one point issuing a statement, vowing to keep fighting “for those Arkansans who are sick and tired of these types of political games and the people who play them”—Darr resigned in February. He still owes the state almost $10,000 and is paying his ethics fine on time. Federal investigators continue to review his case. (Max Brantley, Arkansas Times)
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne
Attorney General Tom Horne is the highest law enforcement official in Arizona, but he has less integrity than the slimy political hacks who now no longer return his calls. Horne has been dogged by allegations of impropriety ever since he was banned for life from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 1973.
In other words, Arizonans should have seen this one coming like triple-digit heat in July. But the Canadian-born Democrat-turned-Republican successfully cheated his way into office during a close 2010 general election by allegedly coordinating illegally with an independent expenditure committee run by his political operative, current AG outreach director Kathleen Winn.
No one would have known of this campaign hanky-panky were it not for Horne’s own bumbling in office. First, he hired his mistress for a six-figure job she was unqualified for. Then, when Phoenix New Times published a piece about this impropriety, he assigned a veteran AG investigator to find the “leak” in his administration. Instead, the investigator uncovered evidence of lawbreaking by the AG and his staff, including the aforementioned campaign-finance violations, which the investigator dutifully turned over to the FBI.
Horne avoided an indictment but was hit with a $400,000 civil fine, which he’s been dodging in court. Meanwhile, an ex-staffer has accused him of running his re-election campaign out of his public office (that’s illegal, son) and has backed up the allegations with 146 pages of emails and documents, including the metadata to show who did what and when.
Realizing he’s as done as a burnt corn dog, Arizona Republicans want him to bow out, but—always delusional—Horne ain’t going nowhere without further making a fool of himself. So his campaign and disastrous reign continue apace. (Stephen Lemons, Phoenix New Times)
Campo Mayor Ray Johnson, Colorado
Being the mayor of tiny Campo isn’t a full-time job, so Ray Johnson has plenty of time to run his barbecue joint, Ray’s Smokehouse, sell cars, work on his cattle ranch, DJ dances and get more tattoos—he’s been billed as the most tattooed mayor in the nation.
In fact, Johnson was missing so much work while traveling to see his favorite tattoo artist that he thought of resigning a few years ago: “I wasn’t doing it justice here,” he said. But the townspeople encouraged him to stay—a move they may regret now. Because in February, Johnson and his twin sons, Kevin and Kasey, were arrested and charged with theft and embezzlement.
According to Campo’s police chief, the trio had stolen more than 230 gallons of the town’s gas, worth up to a thousand dollars, in six weeks—all documented in a video that showed the Johnsons using a locked pump to fill their personal cars and gas cans. The case is pending.
Kevin, a sergeant with the Campo Police Department, had a key to the pump for his patrol car. Kasey is also a public servant: He’s with the volunteer Campo Fire Department, where busy Ray Johnson is the assistant fire chief. Ray is also a deacon at the Campo Baptist Church and “spends a great deal of his time volunteering for the community,” according to the Ray’s Smokehouse website—and volunteering, it would seem, to relieve the community of some of its gas. (Patricia Calhoun, Westword)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal
We’ll skip Nathan Deal’s congressional service, which ended with a probe into why the Republican tried to persuade state officials not to scrap a lucrative salvage program that benefited a company he co-owned.
Since moving into the governor’s mansion in 2011, he’s helped a state senator land a cushy $150,000 radio gig with the state media outlet (which the lawmaker held while also lobbying for the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association).
Most recently, Deal wanted to narrow the definition of a government whistleblower—a policy proposal made right after the state was ordered to pay a former ethics commission employee a seven-figure sum for wrongful termination after she tried to investigate his gubernatorial campaign. Want to take a look at documents related to the controversial sale of that salvage yard to a company that owes the state tens of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes? An open-records request will cost you millions of dollars!
Deal also falls on the wrong sides of issues. Expanding Medicaid—and helping hundreds of thousands of Georgians access health care—is now much tougher since he supported state lawmakers’ proposal to take away his authority to do so.
In an attempt to sway potential voters, he increased education funding by $500 million, which sounds nice until you realize that it’s an election year—and that his party has axed nearly $8 billion in school funding over the past decade. After he botched the state’s response to a winter storm, leaving people stranded in freezing temperatures, he led the media on a $12,000 helicopter tour to check out a second storm’s ice damage (which was minimal). And his administration paid thousands of dollars to a national publication that says Georgia is the best state to do business. The biggest head-scratcher: Deal might very well be re-elected in November. (Max Blau, Creative Loafing)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott
He looks like Voldemort, speaks in the high-pitched timbre of a Wes Anderson movie villain and wants to drug-test as many human beings as possible. More disastrous for Florida residents, he’s recklessly rejected federal stimulus packages and dismantled regulatory agencies. He’s Rick Scott, and he’s America’s least popular governor for damn good reason.
Backed by a wave of Tea Party support—and bankrolled by $70 million of his own cash—he won a shocking gubernatorial victory in 2010. The win was all the more remarkable considering Scott’s background. His fortune came from founding a health care empire, later called Columbia/HCA, which paid the single largest Medicare fraud fine in U.S. history—$1.7 billion for stealing from the feds.
Scott showed that his wanton disregard for regulation didn’t end with his golden parachute from his felonious firm. In the governor’s office, he quickly stripped millions of dollars from the state health care agency and laid off environmental regulators. He also signed new laws requiring all welfare recipients and every state employee to undergo random drug testing. How did he get around the slightly sticky wicket that a firm he owned makes millions by administering such tests? He signed the company over to his wife. (The courts have since thrown out the drug-testing laws for violating the Fourth Amendment.)
He’s made other shady moves. Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal aid to build a high-speed train in Central Florida and lied about the state having to eat cost overruns for the project. During the 2012 presidential election, he tried to suppress black votes with blatantly race-based bans on Sunday early voting (which black congregations dominate). He also tried to kill a prescription-drug database that has decimated oxycodone abuse, while his underfunded health care agency has allowed steroid clinics—like the Biogenesis clinic at the heart of last year’s Major League Baseball scandal—to proliferate.
And through it all, Scott has largely flouted Florida’s “Sunshine laws” by hiding his correspondence from the public and resisted reporters’ attempts to hold him accountable—all while grinning like a demented right-wing Skeletor for TV cameras at scripted events. Is it any wonder his opinion polls have struggled to top 30 percent since he was elected? (Tim Elfrink, Miami New Times)
Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger
It’s puzzling how Jase Bolger has remained speaker of Michigan’s Republican-led house. He previously led the state GOP’s quest to eliminate (nonexistent) voter fraud and, more recently, supported the politically sheisty move to reallocate Michigan’s electoral votes based on who wins the popular vote—in districts he helped gerrymander to the benefit of his party.
But Bolger’s most egregious move came during the 2012 election cycle: He hatched a scheme to rig the election in Michigan’s 76th House District. Bolger conspired with state Representative Roy Schmidt, a Republican from Grand Rapids, to have Schmidt register as a Democrat in the race at the very last second. Schmidt had his son find a phony candidate and agreed to pay to have this person file for the race but never actually campaign.
Their guinea pig initially agreed to go along with the plan but later backed out. Nonetheless, a Republican prosecutor who investigated the case determined the episode wasn’t illegal but was obviously unethical. The prosecutor, William Forsyth, wrote he was embarrassed by Bolger’s plan, a move he said was “clearly intended to undermine the election and to perpetrate a fraud on the electorate.” (Ryan Felton, Detroit Metro Times)
Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano, Michigan
The local commentariat was stunned to hear Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano would run for a fourth term this year. His administration has been rife with scandal from the onset of his tenure. A handful of Ficano aides have been federally indicted for bribery or conspiracy charges. County employees have received sweetheart severance packages: One got $250,000 just for being fired, only to earn an additional $700,000 after a court determined she was improperly canned.
Some officials have received such lucrative pension deals that they’ve been able to retire in their 40s. All thanks to Ficano. The county executive’s most recent flub involved a proposed jail in downtown Detroit. Ficano had to scrap the half-built project because it was $100 million over budget. On top of that, he hasn’t been able to grapple with the county’s debt, which has ballooned to $175 million. If Ficano’s recent plan to shed that debt fails, reports have suggested Wayne could be the first county to receive a state-appointed emergency manager who would have near-total control over its day-to-day finances. (Ryan Felton, Detroit Metro Times)
Former Idaho House Rep. Phil Hart
Phil Hart represented Idaho’s panhandle for four terms in the Idaho House of Representatives. But he spent almost as much time in state and federal courtrooms as he spent in the Idaho Capitol.
Hart appeared on most citizens’ radar with his sponsorship of something called the Idaho Silver Gem Act, which would have allowed Idahoans to pay taxes using silver bars—mined in his home district. But Hart had no intention of paying his own taxes; he stopped filing returns in 1996. At last count, the IRS said Hart owed feds around $500,000, and the State of Idaho said he owes about $53,000 to its tax commission.
But Hart’s real chutzpah came when he regularly argued that his status as a state legislator granted him protection from dealing with the tax authorities. Meanwhile, Hart continued to tangle with the Idaho House ethics committee, which ultimately decided to let its fellow legislator skate away unscathed. Perhaps most important, Hart was regularly re-elected to the legislature by wide margins.
And in a peculiar twist, he was reportedly found asleep in his car at a rural rest stop in April 2012 where a woman had been shot. Idaho police ended up clearing Hart and sending him on his way, saying it was just a bizarre coincidence.
Too many scandals eventually caught up with Hart, and he lost a 2012 GOP primary. But his epitaph is far from being written: Federal authorities say they’re still laying the groundwork for criminal tax charges against the former lawmaker. (George Prentice, Boise Weekly)
Illinois state Rep. Derrick Smith
Derrick Smith is merely the latest Illinois politician to transition from the corridors of power to the criminal court system. But he didn’t do it without help from some of the top political operators in the state—and from the voting public.
Smith was once fired from a gig as a city streets and sanitation supervisor. Yet with the support of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, the most popular figure in state government, Smith ended up in the General Assembly in 2011. During his first term, he was a loyal soldier for White and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, though he remained highly visible in his Chicago district.
But in 2012, Smith agreed to write a letter supporting a state grant for a daycare center in his district—all he needed in return was a little “donation.” On March 10 of that year, Smith met with someone connected to the daycare center and happily accepted $7,000 in cash.
Alas, he didn’t have much time to enjoy it, because the daycare representative turned out to be a mole for the FBI. Three days later, Smith was arrested and charged with taking a bribe.
Undaunted, Smith decided he could and should continue to serve the people. A week after his arrest, he won the Democratic primary. His colleagues in the state house voted to oust him from office, but Smith reclaimed his seat in November 2012.
His loyal Democratic votes in the house were enough to secure the ongoing support of Speaker Madigan, but Smith’s good fortune ran out when he lost in a recent primary. Then, earlier this month, a federal jury found him guilty of bribery and attempted extortion. He faces up to 30 years in prison but continues to insist the naysayers have it wrong. “God knows the truth about it all,” he told reporters after his conviction. “The jury just didn’t see what God saw.” (Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, Florida
Pobre Hialeah. The sixth largest city in Florida and second most populous in Miami-Dade County is one of the biggest Cuban-American enclaves in the United States—and it’s also probably the only town in the land that’s been run by two consecutive loan sharks.
Three years ago, Hialeah residents thought they had rid themselves of one of the slimiest operatives in America, Mayor Julio Robaina. “El Jefe,” it turns out, was doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in off-the-books loans and then charging up to 36 percent annual interest. Unfortunately for Robaina, one of the regular customers of his black-market operation was a local jewelry store owner who was also running a massive $40 million Ponzi scheme. When the scam toppled and trustees went looking for spoils, they began asking about the $300,000 the store owner had paid to the mayor. Robaina soon found himself under federal indictment for tax fraud. (He was later found not guilty by a jury and blamed the missing taxes on accounting errors.)
Pretty bad, right? Luckily in 2011, Hialeah got rid of Robaina when he resigned to run for county mayor, replacing him with Carlos Hernandez, his squeaky-clean deputy. All seemed well until this April, when Hernandez was called as a witness in Robaina’s trial and put on the stand, where he promptly admitted under oath that yes, indeed, he’d run his own high-interest loan scheme and had even done a $100,000 deal with the same Ponzi schemer.
The good news is that if you’re hanging in Hialeah and need some bones on the quick, there’s no need to turn to a shady check-cashing operation. Just head to city hall. (Tim Elfrink, Miami New Times)
Massachusetts State House Speaker Robert DeLeo
Robert DeLeo has bobbed and weaved around investigations that have come dangerously close to his circle. But he has somehow avoided the same criminal fate of the three consecutive house patriarchs before him. Nevertheless, with occasional reluctant aid from Gov. Deval Patrick, the speaker has reacted more to headlines than the commonwealth’s needs.
From facilitating ineffective three-strikes legislation in response to the high-profile murder of a single cop, to perpetually playing politics with casinos and medical marijuana, to his despicably stubborn stance on increasing the minimum wage, DeLeo demonstrates that in true-blue Massachusetts, Democrats generally make the best villains. (Chris Faraone, Dig Boston)
Montana state Sen. Art Wittich
The call for campaign finance reform has escalated dramatically since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. Much of the concern centers on the shadowy world of so-called dark-money groups—politically active nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. No politician in Montana is more closely tied to dark money than Senator Art Wittich, a Republican from Bozeman and the 2013 state senate majority leader.
For years, Wittich’s law firm acted as the registered agent for the nonprofit, Colorado-based American Tradition Partnership. Formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, ATP was featured in a 2012 exposé on “Frontline.” Wittich’s firm also represented ATP in its challenge to Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which barred corporate spending in state campaigns for a century. The act was overturned.
Relying in part on information contained in several boxes of documents recovered from a meth house in Colorado, Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices has issued eight rulings of campaign practice violations against ATP over the past year. One of them was tied to Wittich’s 2010 primary bid.
The commissioner also ruled this year that Wittich violated campaign law during that race by coordinating with and accepting corporate donations through ATP. A district court judge recently declined a recommendation that Wittich be removed from the 2014 ballot. So the senator will again bid to run—in a district where he does not reside. (Alex Sakariassen, Missoula Independent)
Pennsylvania state Sen. LeAnna Washington
LeAnna Washington, age 68, was not one to let her July birthday go by without a big bash that doubled as a campaign fundraiser. Problem is, she used her state office staff to plan and promote her elaborate gala, according to a grand jury report released this past March. In fact, some of her staffers allege they spent the weeks and months leading up to the party concentrating entirely on the celebration.
Those who objected say they saw their salaries cut or were shown the door. When a former aide challenged the senator, telling her it was illegal to use her state office staff this way, she allegedly blew up at him: “I am the f---ing senator, I do what the f--- I want, and ain’t nobody going to change me,” she told him, according to the grand jury report. “I have been doing it like this for 17 years. So stop trying to change me.”
The Democratic senator is accused of spending between $30,000 and $100,000 in state taxpayer funds on her annual gala fundraiser and now faces felony charges of conflict of interest and theft of services. Voters in the Democratic primary in May told Washington she could no longer have her cake and eat it too. She lost her bid for nomination to another term of the senate seat she has held since 2005. (Lil Swanson, Philadelphia City Paper)
Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey, Montana
The Ravalli County Treasurer’s Office has experienced its fair share of upheaval in recent years. Riding a wave of local Tea Party victories in the 2010 election, Mary Hudson-Smith ousted then-incumbent JoAnne Johnson only to resign suddenly a few months later when it became clear she couldn’t do the job. That brief but troubling interlude now seems like a mere hiccup compared to the long, sustained belch of Valerie Stamey’s tenure.
The Ravalli County Commission last September voted 3-2 in favor of appointing Stamey to replace outgoing treasurer Marie Keeton, who resigned for personal reasons. Within a few months, three employees had left the office and Stamey’s remaining staff faced a growing backlog of work. County and municipal departments were running on reserves by the beginning of the year. But when the commission insisted Stamey supply an update on the state of her office at a Jan. 21 public meeting, she instead read from a prepared statement leveling criminal allegations against several of her critics.
Stamey was promptly put on administrative leave with pay and by May had collected more than $14,000 in wages and benefits despite being barred from her workplace. Meanwhile the county spent tens of thousands of dollars more both investigating Stamey’s allegations, which proved unfounded, and auditing the treasurer’s office, which revealed no signs of fraud but found the county’s accounts were $31 million short. By summer, all but a few thousand dollars had been recovered.
Stamey continued to run to keep her seat in this year’s election, but lost in the Republican primary in early June. The county is currently pursuing two separate lawsuits against her. When Stamey failed to respond to a demand for her immediate resignation late last month, the commission voted unanimously to suspend her without pay. (Alex Sakariassen, Missoula Independent)
Former Washington, D.C., Councilman Harry Thomas Jr.
Harry Thomas Jr. isn’t the first public official to steal from kids. But for pure brazenness, it’s hard to beat this sticky-fingered former council member.
Thomas came from a long-running D.C. political dynasty, and it seemed like only a matter of time before he moved up to the mayor’s suite. But when he ran for re-election for his council seat in 2010, Thomas’ Republican opponent noticed something: The financial records for a nonprofit run by Thomas were a mess.
His group, Team Thomas, was supposed to be about introducing at-risk kids to sports like baseball and golf. What it actually did, its financial records revealed, was introduce Thomas to a life of luxury. Enlisting his own staff and corrupted nonprofit officials, he steered grant money toward his organization and then used it to buy trips to Pebble Beach and, in one instance, a $59,000 Audi SUV.
Thanks to his long-shot Republican opponent’s digging, Thomas went on to resign from the council, and in 2012 he pleaded guilty to embezzling $353,500. But the ultimate insult was still to come. As Thomas’ sentencing neared, the District government released more of Thomas’ bank records. Along with the fancy trips and dinners, it turned out, Thomas spent $89 of stolen money on leather chaps — proving that you can steal money, but you can’t steal taste. (Will Sommer, Washington City Paper)
Former Washington, D.C., Councilman Michael Brown
With Clinton-era Commerce Secretary Ron Brown as his father, Michael Brown could have been anything he wanted—a business mogul, a top lawyer, maybe a cabinet secretary himself. Instead, he became one of the most crooked council members in District of Columbia history.
Brown saw a chance to outdo his father’s legacy by winning elected office. He threw his hat into a 2006 race, only to hear from a city Medicaid contractor who offered him $200,000 to drop out and endorse the contractor’s favored candidate. Brown took the cash, then received hundreds of thousands of dollars more in illicit help from the contractor, and finally won a council seat in 2008.
On the council, the sharp-dressing Brown made his name as a crusader for the poor. But he had his own financial woes, including a home in D.C.’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood weighed down by nearly $2 million in mortgage and IRS liens. When another group of would-be city contractors offered Brown bribes to help get government business, he jumped at the chance.
The eager contractors, though, were actually undercover FBI agents. The bribes would turn out to be the end of Brown’s white-collar crime spree. Videos released after his indictment on bribery charges in June 2012 showed the councilman eagerly grabbing at duffel bags and mugs filled with cash.
Though Brown’s legacy won’t outshine his father’s, he has introduced a phrase to the District’s corruption lexicon. Before helping the agents, Brown told them he would need his “piece of the piece”—in other words, another stack of bills. (Will Sommer, Washington City Paper)