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A deep dive into Senate culture

The California Senate, Sacramento. (Photo: Trekandshoot, via Shutterstock)

When the California state Senate reaches the end of its 2013-14 legislative session later this month, it will mark the end of a highly tumultuous period in the institution’s more than 150-year history.

Allegations of bribery, corruption, international arms trafficking, racketeering, perjury, illegal drug use and nepotism among senators and Senate staff have marred the institution’s public image for more than a year. Each time the Senate has responded to a crisis — by suspending three of its members, overhauling ethics rules and dismissing staff — another has arisen.

When the Senate voted to suspend Sens. Leland Yee, Ronald Calderon and Roderick Wright – all Democrats — in late March for various ethical lapses, Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, observed in a statement that “One case is an anomaly, two is a coincidence, but three? That’s not what this Senate is about.” He called on the entire body to “take a deeper look at (Senate) culture.”

In the wake of repeated instances of ethical shortcoming since last June, it remains unsettled what, exactly, comprises the Senate’s culture — and how it has been altered by the turmoil and reforms of the last year.  Also, the cases of the three senators are sharply different with few common threads.

But whatever the true nature of the Senate’s internal culture, one thing is certain for Kathay Feng, executive director of the public interest and advocacy group California Common Cause.

“Whatever happened in (these situations),” she said, “it had been brewing for a long time.”

A long time brewing
Yee, D-San Francisco, was arrested days before the suspension vote on federal corruption and arms trafficking charges (he picked up an additional racketeering charge last week). Calderon, D-Montebello, was charged with fraud, bribery and money laundering in February following an FBI raid on his Capitol office in June 2013. Wright, D-Inglewood, was convicted of felony voter fraud and perjury in January.

The Senate’s staff has been known in the Capitol for its stability and longevity.  Beard and Hidalgo, for example, have served under a succession of   Senate leaders, as has Greg Schmidt, who as secretary of the Senate is the house’s top administrative officer.

Since the March suspension vote, however, Steinberg’s plea to closely examine Senate culture has taken on a broader meaning.

Early in May, Steinberg fired Senate sergeant-at-arms Gerardo Lopez when court records revealed the in-house peace officer had used cocaine before a December 2012 shootout at his Sacramento residence in which a person died. The staffs in the Capitol do not have Civil Service protections, unlike state workers in the bureaucracy.

The Sacramento Bee reported that the Senate’s long-time chief sergeant-at-arms, Tony Beard, had withheld information about Lopez’ drug use from Steinberg, who only learned of the incident after being asked about it by the press.

Beard, whose father also served as Senate chief sergeant decades earlier, resigned his position.

Days later, an anonymous letter signed only “We The Senate Staff” was sent to multiple Senators, alleging widespread nepotism in the Senate’s hiring practices largely under the direction of Lopez’ mother, Senate human resources manager Dina Hidalgo. The Sacramento Bee reported that at least five of Hidalgo’s family members worked at the Capitol. Capitol Weekly reviewed a copy of the letter.

Steinberg has played at center stage through it all. Each of the suspended Senators was a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, of which Steinberg is the ranking member. The Pro Tem is the chair of the powerful five-member Senate Rules Committee, which oversees hiring decisions  and is the top-ranking supervisor of Senate staff, including the sergeant-at-arms office.

“If you don’t know something,” Burton growled, “how the f*** do you know it?”

The Senate’s staff has been known in the Capitol for its stability and longevity.  Beard and Hidalgo, for example, have served under a succession of   Senate leaders, as has Greg Schmidt, who as secretary of the Senate is the house’s top administrative officer. Schmidt is expected to retire this year. The Senate employs about 900 staff members and has a $100 million annual operating budget. A number of Capitol staffers who have worked in both the Senate and Assembly say they prefer working in the Senate because of its professionalism and structure.

Some Capitol observers pointed to Steinberg’s restrained leadership style as a reason he only came to know of Yee, Calderon and Lopez’ misbehavior when the allegations against them became public.

But former Senate leaders David Roberti and John Burton were quick to defend Steinberg’s response to the Yee, Calderon and Lopez affairs.

Roberti, whose own leadership was questioned after several L.A.-area senators were convicted of corruption following a 1988 FBI raid on the Capitol, noted that senators don’t report to the Pro Tem as if there were some sort of legal hierarchy. Robert said he doubted any Pro Tem could possibly know everything about his members’ activities.

“You’re never going to have a legislative body where somebody doesn’t do something beyond the line, because human beings populate the place,” Roberti said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t try to be vigilant. … But to say someone should have been omniscient, I don’t think you can say that.”

Burton, in a profanity-laced response, concurred.

“If you don’t know something,” he growled, “how the f*** do you know it?”

Capitol insiders and outsiders alike offered the view that Wright, Calderon and Yee are anomalies — foolish public officials who didn’t know when to stop their apparent wrongdoing. “I don’t see a house in disarray,” Burton noted, and Capitol outsiders agreed. Moreover, there was no connection of the alleged illegal activities among the three accused lawmakers.

“(What) we should always be concerned about is not the outliers,” said Feng of Common Cause, “but the behavior of the 99 percent of the Legislature.”

Voters wary of ethical lapses
Burton’s confidence that the Senate remains in working order might be lost on California voters. With one ethically questionable incident after another piling up in the public eye, Californians have begun to take stock of rampant revelations of misbehavior behind the Senate’s hallowed doors.

Despite the apparent disapproval of Yee, however, he still received 380,000 votes for secretary of state.

Studies of voter approval of the Legislature’s performance conducted by The Field Poll, an independent and non-partisan public opinion news group, found state lawmakers’ public reputation rapidly rising from a low of 14 percent in 2010 to 38 percent by 2013. When The Field Poll performed its first survey of 2014 in March, however, the study inadvertently coincided with reports that Yee had been arrested.

Voters in The Field Poll’s study showed an immediate response to the news, dragging initially positive poll results showing a 46 percent approval rating down to 43 percent. In June, when The Field Poll conducted its next poll on Legislative performance, statewide approval was only 35 percent — a reversal of the significant gains made in 2013.

Despite the apparent disapproval of Yee, however, he still received more than 380,000 votes for secretary of state.

“Immediately prior to (Yee’s arrest)…the public was warming up to the legislature,” said Mark DiCamillo, Senior Vice President at the Field Research Corporation. “But right when that news story broke … you could see that ratings went down again. We attributed that decline to the negative ratings (of) the Yee scandal.”

But DiCamillo and others were skeptical the public reaction would be long lasting. Popular opinion about the Legislature is mostly dictated by economic performance, DiCamillo said, and both appear on the upswing. And a widespread cynicism about government and politics in the state could have further muffled public outcry, according to Feng.

By the time the Senate voted for suspension of its three disgraced members in late March, Calderon and Wright had already taken months-long paid leaves of absence to fight their legal battles. Wright was convicted on eight felony counts in January, and Calderon was indicted in early February.

“(Turmoil in the Senate) has made its way into the public psyche, but I think we are now living in an age when people are more cynical, and people have lowered expectations for their elected officials overall,” Feng said. “The shock factor has been replaced with sarcastic jokes. … These days, we’re so convinced that our electeds have been bought by public interests, that people give a cynical shrug to this news.”

Suspensions raise constitutional questions, draw criticism
Since March, the Senate has introduced a number of measures in an effort to restore public trust and prevent future misconduct, but none of the chamber’s actions aimed at combating ethics violations have entirely avoided controversy.

By the time the Senate voted for suspension of its three disgraced members in late March, Calderon and Wright had already taken months-long paid leaves of absence to fight their legal battles. Wright was convicted on eight felony counts in January, and Calderon was indicted in early February.

Steinberg allowed each to retain their Senate privileges on the informal condition that “they would not come back to the Senate unless and until they were exonerated,” according to a statement from Steinberg.

Some Democrats claimed Wright, at least, was victimized by overzealous prosecutors over the relatively common infraction of living outside one’s district. Steinberg quoted the Bible at the time, commenting, “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

But when the FBI affidavit attributing a myriad of alleged crimes to Yee surfaced, Steinberg recognized leaves of absence were “no longer sufficient” and pushed to suspend all three troubled Senators. The Senate voted 28-1 in favor of the measure.

But the delayed response to allegations against Calderon and Wright, and the constitutional issues raised by Steinberg’s call for suspension rather than outright expulsion of the three Senators, drew the ire of Senator Joel Anderson, R-Alpine.

“While the Senate should always be expected to behave ethically, the Senate leadership’s newfound ethics focus rings hollow when they allow unethical behavior to run rampant through their own ranks,” Anderson said in a May op-ed on the California political news website Flashreport.com. “Honest ethics means not only taking illegal behavior seriously, but also honoring the public who we serve.”

The state constitution allows for expulsion of legislators — which requires a timely election to replace them — but contains no mention of suspension. Steinberg’s consultation with the Legislative Counsel assured him it was nonetheless within the Senate’s authority to suspend Calderon, Wright and Yee, but not to withhold their pay — a route he chose to pursue because Yee and Calderon’s had yet to be convicted of any crimes.

All three members will collect their salaries until Calderon and Yee’s are forced out on term limits this year. Steinberg has said the Senate won’t consider permanently expelling Wright, whose term ends in 2016, until a judge upholds his convictions. A court date is set for Sept. 3.

“I recognize that the more satisfying and popular move would be immediate expulsion,” Steinberg said in a statement. “Yet I reluctantly conclude that expulsion, as an irreversible act, would run afoul of the basic American principles of due process and the presumption that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Steinberg has sponsored Senate Constitutional Amendment 17, which would allow the Legislature to withhold suspended members’ pay in the future. The bill lays out no requirements for justifying suspensions, however, and allows a member to be suspended for an indefinite amount of time with a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds required for expulsion. The measure,  which would require voter approval, is currently in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“The ethics rules that passed are really focused on plugging the specific holes that were made evident by the recent indictments and conviction, but they do not go so far as to address some of the larger issues,” Feng said.

“Steinberg could not articulate why this new, opaque measure was needed when the California Constitution clearly provides expulsion as a means to remove senators from office while immediately setting an election in motion,” Anderson said in another May op-ed, which appeared in The Sacramento Bee. “Under his bill, constituents would be left without answers and without representation.”

Ethics rules can only go so far
In early June, following Gerardo Lopez’ dismissal and the circulation of the letter alleging nepotism, the Senate passed a series of new ethics rules intended to further restore public confidence and improve the chamber’s internal culture.

Among other things, the new rules created an ethics ombudsman to “facilitate the receipt of information about potential ethical violations” and a new Committee on Legislative Ethics to “ensure that an informant or complainant does not suffer adverse consequences with respect to his or her employment.”

When the new rules first emerged from the Senate Rules Committee, Steinberg stated they “will not fix all of the challenges and the problems that have risen to public attention, but will have a demonstrable, positive effect on the culture of the Senate.”

Yet public interest groups have indicated the new rules can only go so far toward addressing the larger issue of money run amok in politics.

“I think the Senators themselves could exercise a lot more control over how people are hired and fired.”

“The ethics rules that passed are really focused on plugging the specific holes that were made evident by the recent indictments and conviction, but they do not go so far as to address some of the larger issues,” Feng said. “As long as campaigns are not…publicly financed…there will always be a hamster wheel that these candidates have to run on. There (are) promises that are made in terms of access.”

Phillip Ung, political director at the public interest and advocacy group California Forward, cautioned that the ethical dilemmas presented by fundraising don’t necessarily imply complete ethical bankruptcy in the Capitol, but agreed with Feng that the root causes of recent political corruption cases remain unaddressed.

“The statement that there’s a culture of corruption in the Capitol is a little overblown,” Ung said. “The culture I’m discussing is one where legislators or public officials believe they can raise money (in certain ways) or have interactions with certain people without being held accountable. There’s only so much that reforms can do, there’s only so many laws you can pass.”

Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who will step down at the end of her first term in the Senate this year to pursue her private law practice, emphasized that action at the federal level would be the best solution to fundraising problems exacerbated by Citizens United v. FEC and other Supreme Court cases.

“Until either Congress acts or the Supreme Court acts, there’s not a lot that can be done, and everything else is really nibbling around the edges,” Evan said. Ironically, California for years has been more like the new Citizens United situation: There were few restrictions on who could give.

But concerning issues of nepotism among Senate staff, Evans took a more active interest in pragmatic reforms.

“The Senate could adopt much more stringent rules and exercise a lot more oversight,” Evans said. “The way that things are run in the Senate is that the Rules Committee exercises authority over staff. I think the Senators themselves could exercise a lot more control over how people are hired and fired.”

As Senator Kevin De León, D-Los Angeles, prepares to take the helm of the Senate when Steinberg is termed out at the session’s end, Evans suggested that major changes in the Senate will only continue in the coming months.

“Part of what we’re seeing is an institution that has been around for a long time that is in the midst of institutional change,” Evans said.

Ed’s Note: Connor Grubaugh, a UC Berkeley student, is a Capitol Weekly intern from the Public Affairs Journalism program at UC’s Sacramento Center.


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