Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi voted on hundreds of bills last September. She returned to the Capitol last week as leader of a powerful committee.
In between, her lawyer says, a benign brain tumor affected her judgment and contributed to a shoplifting arrest.
The Castro Valley Democrat declined Monday to discuss the brain tumor, when it was diagnosed, or what role it played when she walked away from a Neiman Marcus without paying for nearly $2,500 in clothing a pair of leather pants, a black skirt and a white blouse.
Hayashi's attorney, Douglas Rappaport, said Friday that a brain tumor impaired her decision-making but that it is being treated with medication and no longer affects her.
Medical experts said Monday that it is very rare, however, for a brain tumor that does not require surgery to influence behavior so significantly.
In Hayashi's Alameda County district, not everyone is buying the explanation.
"My gut feeling, as a constituent, is that it's a BS excuse in order to get out of her crime," said Brian Morrison, who is president of the Castro Valley Chamber of Commerce but stressed that he is speaking only as an individual.
Hayashi, 45, pleaded no contest Friday to misdemeanor shoplifting. She was sentenced to three years of probation and nearly $200 in fines, but reduction of the charge from a felony makes her eligible to continue as a lawmaker.
Hayashi has assured Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez that she is medically cleared to continue her work at the Capitol, said Robin Swanson, Perez's spokeswoman.
"She has taken full responsibility for her actions and we consider the matter closed," Swanson said.
Hayashi, after briefly attending an Assembly floor session Monday, released a prepared statement in which she apologized, saying she had "unintentionally walked out of a store" with unpaid merchandise.
Hayashi said "there were a number of personal factors that led to the situation where I made this absent-minded error."
"My medical condition may have complicated the situation," Hayashi said. "However, I want to be clear that I take full responsibility for my actions."
Shortly after her arrest, Sam Singer, Hayashi's spokesman, said that she had been distracted and walked out of Neiman Marcus with unpaid clothing while talking on a cellular phone. Singer said nothing at the time about a brain tumor or other medical impairment.
Chairwoman of the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee, Hayashi has declined interviews about the incident. Her written statement did not explain how a tumor could impair her decision-making in October but leave her fit to make legislative decisions before and afterward.
The no-contest plea means that evidence in the case will never be disclosed in court.
Dr. Paul Muizelaar, professor and chair of neurological surgery at UC Davis Cancer Center, said a large tumor pressing on the frontal lobe could affect a person's behavior. But that type of growth would require surgery and unlike the tumor described by Hayashi's attorney cannot be treated with medication, he said.
Muizelaar said there is a "very rare" type of tumor that can cause seizures or some form of epilepsy that influences behavior, such as causing the individual to laugh uncontrollably or experience smells or scents that no one else around them can detect. He said he felt it "very unlikely" that such seizures would spark a shoplifting incident.
Hayashi will be termed out of the Assembly and has formed a committee to consider a Senate run in 2014.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said voters tend to be sympathetic about medical problems if lawmakers are open about them.
An ailment, by itself, does not necessarily create a political problem "as long as the officeholder explains to voters what limitations the condition puts on her, and why she's capable of performing the duties of her office," Schnur said.
Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said that Hayashi had not reported a brain tumor to the Assembly and that none of her colleagues had complained of unusual behavior on her part.
Assistant District Attorney Omid Talai said that prosecutors had heard months ago that Hayashi might suffer from a medical condition, but when they requested documents, the defense did not respond.
Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Ceres, who serves as vice chairman of Hayashi's committee, said he had no indication that she suffered from a brain tumor.
"She's been a great chair to work with, quite frankly," he said.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, expressed sympathy Monday.
"I'm relieved to know that her condition is curable," Galgiani said. "I know this is a difficult and trying time for her, and I wish her the best and a speedy recovery."