By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013 – 12:00 am

It makes sense that state lawmakers might feud over who gets to lead California’s Latino Legislative Caucus. The 25 Democrats who make up the group, after all, constitute more than a fifth of the Legislature, control hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds and wield influence that affects millions of Californians.

But the details of the most recent leadership fight caught the attention of FBI agents investigating one caucus member, state Sen. Ron Calderon, for allegedly taking bribes, according to a court-sealed affidavit made public by Al Jazeera America last month.

The affidavit alleges that another caucus member, Sen. Kevin de León, brokered a deal between Calderon and Sen. Ricardo Lara that resulted in Lara retaining the caucus chairmanship and the group paying $25,000 to a nonprofit run by Calderon’s brother, former assemblyman Tom Calderon. According to the affidavit, Ron Calderon told an undercover FBI agent that the brothers planned to draw eventually on money held by the nonprofit to make “part of a living.”

No charges have been filed, but the emerging case has exposed caucus decisions to public view just as the group’s influence is peaking. Its membership has grown from five members when it formed in 1973 to 25 members today – and the caucus now controls hundreds of thousands of dollars that donors with business at the Capitol give to its political action committees and nonprofit foundations. The caucus played a major role in influencing legislation this year, including a package of bills expanding rights for undocumented immigrants and killing a bill to ban plastic bags at grocery stores.

“If you look at the last 20 years, the influence and the political clout of the Latino Legislative Caucus has grown tremendously,” said former Assembly Speaker Fabián Núñez. He said the Latino caucus has gained power as the demographics of the Legislature has evolved to more closely reflect Californians.

“When people ask me for advice, I always say, ‘The more power you have, the more attention you’re going to get. And sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad. You get scrutinized.’”

The affidavit’s allegation that the Latino caucus used money from one of its political fundraising accounts to pay off Calderon during the chairmanship dispute is the first confirmation that the caucus leader has been drawn into the FBI’s broader probe of Calderon, a Montebello Democrat. Lara, the Bell Gardens Democrat who was re-elected caucus chair on Dec. 3, has declined The Bee’s interview requests to discuss the investigation and caucus fundraising since June.

“The longer the investigation goes, the longer the Latino caucus and some of its leadership members look like they’re being investigated,” said Jaime Regalado, former director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

“The case starts to take prisoners beyond Ron Calderon. That’s a danger to those legislators even if none of them are (convicted) of wrongdoing in a major sense. It looks bad. It looks like there are favors.”

De León, a Democrat from Los Angeles, announced in June that he’s been subpoenaed in the case. Last week, U.S. attorneys sent De León’s lawyer a letter saying he is a witness, not a target, of their investigation into possible corruption by Calderon and others.

Key legislation pushed

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