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California lawmaker convicted of voter fraud allowed to take paid leave

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A Democratic state senator convicted of eight felonies will be allowed to take a paid leave of absence, angering Republicans who called on Wednesday for his resignation, a move that could weaken Democrats' tenuous hold on their two-thirds majority.

Senator Roderick Wright, who represents parts of Los Angeles and the suburb of Inglewood, was convicted last month of voter fraud and perjury after prosecutors said he did not physically live in the district he represented.

"I'm the new guy here, but I've got very good parents and I just don't understand this," said freshman senator Andy Vidak, one of three Republican senators who introduced a resolution on Wednesday calling for Wright to be expelled from the legislature. "Eight felonies is pretty grand."

For the past year, Democrats have controlled both houses of the state legislature as well as the governorship in California, with large "super-majorities" that allow them to raise taxes and take other actions that require a two-thirds vote.

But Democrats could at least temporarily lose two seats in the senate currently held by Wright and by Ron Calderon, who is under pressure to step down after his recent indictment on corruption charges. Should both lawmakers be unseated, Democrats would be one vote short of a two-thirds majority.

The senate's top Democratic leader approved a leave of absence for Wright until the judge in his case formally accepts the verdict and hands down a sentence.

Wright's lawyer, Winston McKesson, said Wednesday that the senator planned to ask the judge to reject the verdict, arguing that the jury did not properly apply state law defining a domicile for the purpose of running for political office.

"Senator Wright has taken a leave of absence until his criminal case is resolved," Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said in a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday. "He's not coming back unless the judge sets aside the verdict. Period."

Steinberg said he would take up the Republican resolution to expel Wright if it is brought up before the senate, a move expected to take place on Thursday.

TWO SENATORS

Vidak, in an interview with Reuters, questioned why Steinberg would allow Wright, who has been convicted, to take a paid leave when he is demanding Calderon's resignation over an indictment that has not yet been brought to trial.

Steinberg stripped Calderon of his committee assignments in 2013, long before his indictment last week on two dozen counts of bribery, fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, after a leaked FBI document from the investigation was posted online by the news agency Al Jazeera.

He has called upon the Los Angeles Democrat to resign, and said Wednesday he had given Calderon until Monday to "consider his options." A Steinberg spokesman said Wednesday that Calderon should "at the very least" request a leave of absence.

Calderon was accused in a 28-page federal grand jury indictment of taking some $100,000 in cash bribes, along with plane trips, golf outings and jobs for his children, in exchange for influencing legislation.

When Wright was convicted last month, Steinberg refrained from calling for his resignation. Wright will continue to receive his $95,000 annual salary pending his sentencing hearing, scheduled for May.

"The conviction is neither final nor has it been entered as a judgment," Steinberg told reporters on January 30, in an interview posted online by the Sacramento Bee. "I do not believe it is necessary to expel Senator Wright or ask him to resign."

Steinberg did, however, say he had accepted Wright's voluntary offer to resign from his committee assignments.

He defended his decisions in the two cases, saying that they were very different.

"Senate leadership has already moved swiftly and decisively to address these difficult situations in a way that respects both the law and law enforcement and - above all else - safeguards the integrity of the Senate," Steinberg said in a statement.

McKesson, Wright's attorney, said it was unfair to compare his client's case to Calderon's.

"To compare this to Calderon to me is like comparing jaywalking to mass murder," said McKesson, adding that his views were his own and not those of the senator. "Comparing this to Calderon is like trying to charge somebody in New York City with a felony for jaywalking and saying this person is in the same position as Charles Manson."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)

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