For the Calderons, politics and its money are the family business

SACRAMENTO — Ian Calderon's introduction to the family business began at the ripe age of 1.

His dad, Charles Calderon, then a state senator, staged a carnival for his son's birthday at their Montebello home in 1986. The senator used $2,000 in political contributions to pay for the backyard bash, and the guest list included campaign supporters and political pals.

"So what?'' Charles Calderon testified in an unrelated court case four years later. "I've been doing this ever since I was in public office."

Ian Calderon had another birthday party last October. He was 27 years old and the party was at a tony restaurant a block from the Capitol. This time, he was the one who invited campaign supporters, hoping to collect up to $3,900 a head for his state Assembly bid.

The father and son mark the beginning, and possible future, of a political dynasty that has spanned three decades, a family infused into the blue-collar neighborhoods east of Los Angeles where the Calderon surname has appeared on local ballots for two generations.

The Calderons have flourished in the sometimes ruthless environs of the California Assembly and Senate, where four family members have served in the carpeted chambers: brothers Charles, Ronald and Tom, and Charles' son. They've cut reputations for raising campaign cash and reigning over the Legislature's powerful "juice committees," those overseeing banking, insurance and other industries that have the cash to bankroll political campaigns.

They use their political muscle to help one another, squeezing political opponents, pushing legislation backed by supporters and even orchestrating a brazen leadership coup attempt.

"Power begets power," said Jaime A. Regalado, a political scientist at Cal State L.A. "They've been around for the long haul and, over time, scared away a lot of people who wanted to run for their seats."

Controversy also clings to them. Last month, gun-toting FBI agents raided the Capitol offices of state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) and seized records from a Southern California water district with financial ties to Calderon's brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.

Federal officials remain mum on the focus of the investigation, but the inquiry appears to be as far-reaching as the family's influence.

FBI agents questioned officials from cities served by the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a regional water wholesaler in Los Angeles County that has paid Tom Calderon more than $750,000 in consulting fees since 2004.

A Los Angeles County grand jury subpoenaed several lawmakers as part of the probe, including a former aide to Ronald Calderon.

Attorneys for Ronald and Tom Calderon have said their clients have done nothing wrong. Charles Calderon spoke for himself, saying in a telephone interview, "We operate like any other legislator."

The federal investigation has done little to dampen the Calderons' political aspirations.

Ronald Calderon, who will be termed out of the Senate next year, has opened campaign accounts to raise money for possible runs for state controller and an Assembly seat in the future. Tom Calderon maintains a fund to run for his brother's Senate post. Ian Calderon is running for reelection in the Assembly; and his father, Charles, is collecting donations for a campaign for secretary of state.

Until May, Tom Calderon controlled a political action committee whose biggest contributions came from large insurance companies. It paid for outings at golf resorts and for private plane travel, campaign finance reports show.

Calderon family members have opened 54 political accounts since 1986 and have taken in at least $15 million in contributions since 2000. Slightly more than half a million dollars of the money in the family members' political accounts was passed from brother to brother, father to son, uncle to nephew.

An additional $463,000 went to pay the Calderon brothers, wives and children as staff during that time; $110,000 went to Tom Calderon and his firm, Calderon Group.

In addition to campaign expenses, the funds also paid more than $1 million to golf resorts in Las Vegas, Hawaii and other locations; $220,000 on steak dinners, $4,000 for cigars and $325 for false eyelashes. The last item was reported as an "appreciation" gift from Charles Calderon to his sister-in-law, serving as a campaign consultant.

Ronald Calderon's political bounty has paid for high-priced stogies, VIP tickets to Las Vegas boxing matches and Lakers playoff games, his campaign filings show. It has also financed rounds of golf at Pebble Beach, skybox tickets to a Britney Spears concert and a $1,320 spa bill during his "Birthday Bash" fundraiser at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort near San Diego.