Allegations of political corruption in Southern California bring into sharp relief the need for the Legislature to clamp down on practices that allow its members to use nonprofit organizations as personal piggy banks.
Allegations of bribe-taking against Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, have focused attention on state legislators and their close ties with certain nonprofits.
Regardless of whether Calderon or anyone else is ever charged, let alone convicted, the case has demonstrated just how squishy the rules are for nonprofits that are set up by legislators -- mostly, apparently, to improve their own standard of living.
Calderon allegedly accepted $60,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a movie producer who wanted Calderon to push legislation expanding state tax breaks for film studios, according to the sealed FBI affidavit that was made public by Al Jazeera America cable news.
The affidavit says the agent agreed to pay $25,000 of the $60,000 to a nonprofit set up by Calderon's brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.
According to an IRS document called a Form 990 filed by that nonprofit, called Californians for Diversity, its primary tax-exempt purpose is to "Educate, inform, support and focus the California voters on the 'bread and butter' issues of California: jobs, economic development, schools, affordable housing, health care and infrastructure."
The Form 990 shows Californians for Diversity took in $40,500 in 2009 and spent $38,686. It spent $13,976 on "Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors" and $12,108 on travel, food and beverages, and gifts. In 2010, it spent $29,101, of which $21,500 went to travel, food and beverages.
Unfortunately, the forms don't show to whom professional fees were paid or gifts were given, or who did the traveling and eating and drinking that seem to make up much of the "nonprofit's" activities. But we certainly have our suspicions.
After all, according to the FBI affidavit, Ron Calderon told the agent that he and his brother intended to draw on the nonprofit's funds.
The affidavit also alleges that Ron Calderon allowed Sen. Ricardo Lara to remain chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus last year in return for a $25,000 donation from the caucus to Californians for Diversity.
Calderon isn't the only pol to take advantage of this loophole. A number of legislators and former legislators and their relatives have been shown to have unusually close financial ties to various nonprofits
The best time for reforms to become law is in the aftermath of a scandal. This Calderon scandal, however it plays out legally, should provide legislators -- the clean ones, anyway -- with all the incentive they need to try to keep legislators and their kin from setting up "nonprofits" from which they profit and their constituents get next to nothing.