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California lawmakers, bruised by scandal, turn to ethics training

Suspended California State Senator Leland Yee departs the U.S. courthouse following a hearing in San Francisco, California March 31, 2014. R
Suspended California State Senator Leland Yee departs the U.S. courthouse following a hearing in San Francisco, California March 31, 2014. R

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California lawmakers, their reputation tarnished by fraud and corruption scandals, on Wednesday took a break from normal business to attend ethics training, the latest step by the state Senate to repair its image as elections loom.

The all-day, mandatory sessions, held behind closed doors away from the Capitol in Sacramento, were scheduled after three Democratic senators faced criminal charges in a spate of embarrassments for their party, which dominates the state's Legislature.

"When it comes to mixing campaigning and public policy making, everybody should know when to have that gut reaction that 'Nope, we cannot have this conversation,'" Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said. "That's what I want to come out of this day."

The training is focused on the ethical and legal issues faced by lawmakers and their aides in a state where it can cost millions of dollars just to mount a campaign for city council.

Last month, Democratic state Senator Leland Yee was arrested on charges that included accepting bribes in the form of campaign contributions. In February, a lobbyist was fined by regulators for hosting costly fundraisers for officials at his home in what many said was a new interpretation of campaign finance rules.

"Money and politics is a reality," said Steinberg, who called for the ethics training. "But when it comes to campaign fundraising, we need to ask questions about how and when we do it."

The Senate on Tuesday passed a package of bills aimed at tightening campaign finance rules, including prohibiting lobbyists from hosting fundraising parties for officials in their homes and limiting gifts that lawmakers can receive.

The ethics scandals, limited so far to three senators, have taken a toll on the entire Legislature's standing with voters.

A Field poll released April 10 showed that after Yee's arrest in March, the job-approval rating of lawmakers in general declined and disapproval jumped.

In February, Senator Ron Calderon was indicted on corruption charges, and in January Senator Roderick Wright was convicted of lying about living in the district he sought to represent. All three have been suspended with pay, a move that cost Democrats their prized two-thirds majority in the senate.

Steinberg has acknowledged that ethics training is not a panacea.

"There are some things, members, that you just can't teach," he said in a speech to the Senate after Yee's arrest on charges that included conspiracy to traffic in firearms. "I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality and danger of gun-running or other such sordid activities."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

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