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  • Hector Amezcua /

    Darrell Steinberg has had a tough few months as leader of the Senate. The Sacramento Democrat, set to leave office this year, has shaken up the Senate security force and had three senators suspended.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    The halls of the Capitol, where Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, walks with Rusty Selix of Mental Health America of California, have seen upheaval and controversy in recent months.

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Steinberg powers through Senate’s ethics crises in his final year

Published: Friday, May. 9, 2014 - 10:29 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 9, 2014 - 7:38 am

In just a few hours on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg accepted the resignation of the Senate’s longtime law enforcement chief, explained why he fired a member of the security staff who used drugs the night of a fatal shooting and presented a bill that would allow the Legislature to suspend lawmakers without pay in cases alleging grave misconduct.

It wasn’t the kind of day the Sacramento Democrat envisioned when he came to the Legislature 16 years ago.

It hasn’t been the kind of year Steinberg would have chosen to end his legislative career.

After 22 years in public service negotiating tough budgets and championing mental health care and vocational education, the Sacramento Democrat finds himself the face of a Senate beset by scandal.

The man who once feared an old traffic ticket would harm his first race for City Council has been confronted by a torrent of crises since the year began: In January, a perjury conviction for Sen. Rod Wright. In February, a federal corruption indictment for Sen. Ron Calderon. In March, another federal corruption indictment – this time including gun-trafficking conspiracy charges for Sen. Leland Yee. All of them are Democrats.

More recently, Steinberg learned that Tony Beard Jr., the Senate’s longtime law enforcement chief, withheld information from him about an employee who used illegal drugs the night he was involved in a fatal gunfight. Beard stepped down, bringing a sudden end to his 46-year career in the Capitol.

And in the midst of it all, the state’s political watchdog levied a record-setting fine on a Sacramento lobbyist that included warning letters for nearly 40 politicians, including Steinberg and several members of his house.

“Do I have concern? Sure I do. I’m living this,” Steinberg said Tuesday after presenting the measure to allow unpaid suspensions for legislators.

“I did not expect that these sets of issues would be so dominant in my last year of what has been a really great run. A difficult run, but a great run.”

When Steinberg began his leadership of the Senate six years ago, he was described by colleagues as an “even-tempered policy wonk” and “one of the nicest guys in the Capitol.”

Since then he’s pulled off numerous accomplishments. In his first year as Senate leader, Steinberg helped the state balance a $42 billion deficit by making serious cuts to programs dear to the liberal’s heart. As the state’s finances have turned around, Steinberg made sure that budgets restored dental benefits to poor adults and funded crisis beds for the mentally ill. He led the effort to require insurance programs to cover autism treatment for children and established a $250 million grant program to link employers and high schools in an effort to create more relevant career-oriented classes.

Steinberg helped Senate Democrats achieve a historic gain in the 2012 election, when they won a two-thirds supermajority that allowed them to pass tax increases and constitutional amendments without any Republican support.

Yet that power unraveled when Sens. Calderon and Wright took paid leaves of absence to fight their criminal charges. Weeks later – when Yee was charged with corruption and conspiracy to traffic weapons – Steinberg led his chamber in an unprecedented action by suspending all three of them but maintaining their pay.

“I don’t think there is any pro tem in the history of California with this kind of magnitude of things that have unfolded on his watch. So there is no textbook you go to to figure out how you do it,” said the Senate’s Republican leader, Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. “All things considered, I think he’s handled it well.”

No one has publicly blamed Steinberg for the crimes alleged of the three Democrats. Each of them rose through political operations established outside Steinberg’s sphere and came from solidly Democratic districts in San Francisco and Los Angeles without Steinberg’s help.

“These are isolated incidents that really don’t have anything to do with his leadership,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor of political law at Loyola Law School and a member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “They would have happened regardless of who was in his position ... What can we criticize him on? Maybe the aftermath.”

On that score, Steinberg has his critics.

Some say suspending the senators facing criminal charges wasn’t a strong enough move because it maintains their pay and prevents constituents from choosing replacements.

“Darrell Steinberg is the consummate politician, so he’s trying to address these problems as a political crisis rather than a moral crisis,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director. “You get the sense that there is a lot of window dressing to try to create a lot of positive news stories and the perception of change for the public.”

When a jury in January found that Wright lied to voters about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008, Steinberg initially argued that Wright should remain in good standing in the Senate because the verdict wouldn’t be final until upheld by a judge at sentencing. He said residency laws are ambiguous and pointed out that many other legislators have fudged their addresses over the years.

A handful of Republicans in the Senate wanted Steinberg to seek the two-thirds vote necessary to expel – rather than suspend – Wright. That would have ended his pay and allowed his constituents to elect a replacement. But Steinberg quashed their motions, protecting his fellow Democrats from having to take a public stand on the embarrassing issue.

“On a personal level, I like Darrell very much. On a professional level, I’m extremely disappointed that he continues to allow our resolution not to be debated on the floor to expel a senator who’s been found guilty of eight felonies,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, the only senator who voted against the suspensions. He said expulsion made more sense.

“When you say that you’re serious about ethics and yet you don’t allow the debate to be heard on the floor, your actions betray your words,” Anderson said.

As ethical crises in the Senate have piled up, Steinberg has begun to act more swiftly.

After Calderon was indicted on 24 criminal counts including bribery and money laundering, and 37 politicians received FPPC warning letters for benefiting from lavish – and illegal – fundraisers at the home of lobbyist Kevin Sloat, Steinberg stood with his Democratic colleagues to announce a package of bills addressing political ethics.

Their proposals – currently working their way through the Legislature – would ban campaign fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes; prohibit officials from accepting certain gifts such as tickets to concerts, sports events and amusement parks; and require more frequent disclosure of campaign-finance reports.

After Yee was charged with conspiring to import weapons from the Philippines and taking bribes from undercover FBI agents in exchange for political favors, Steinberg canceled Senate Democrats’ biggest fundraiser of the year, halted normal business in the Senate for a day while lawmakers and their aides attended special ethics training and wrote the constitutional amendment that would allow future legislatures to take away the pay of lawmakers they suspend for bringing disrepute to their house.

Steinberg has said the problems provide an opportunity to improve the Capitol’s culture, even while he maintains that he is not to blame for his peers’ troubling situations.

“I’m angry. I’m angry on behalf of the people, and I’m angry on behalf of the 37 other members whose hard work every day on behalf of the people is being tarnished because of events outside of their control and outside of our control,” Steinberg said the day Yee was charged.

A little more than a month later, Steinberg learned that Beard, the Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms, withheld information from him about an officer who had taken drugs the night he was injured in an off-duty gunfight. The situation revealed a different kind of problem for Steinberg. While senators churn in and out as they hit the legal limits of their terms in office, the Senate’s top administration has been in place for decades. And as the leader of the Senate, Steinberg wields more authority over them than he does his fellow senators, who are chosen by voters.

When he learned from The Sacramento Bee that court testimony references a toxicology report showing the employee, Gerardo Lopez, had cocaine and marijuana in his system, he fired Lopez within hours. Days later, he accepted the sudden resignation of Beard, Lopez’s boss.

Now Steinberg is investigating claims of nepotistic hiring by Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, who is the Senate’s head of human resources. The Senate is putting in place new standards for hiring staff – background checks and approval by the Senate’s Rules Committee – said Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams. And Steinberg on Friday announced proposals for new rules that would provide whistle-blower protections to staff who report misconduct, create a new position of ombudsman to act as a clearinghouse for internal complaints and forbid senators from raising campaign money during the last four weeks of the legislative session.

The rules were introduced together by Steinberg and Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat who is in line to take his place as Senate leader later this year. De León said that even while the FBI launched undercover stings that nabbed two senators, Steinberg’s leadership largely kept the Senate, as a whole, safe.

“No policy was altered as a result of alleged illegal influence,” de León said. “Despite the alleged actions of two members, Darrell and the Senate never fell into the trap by passing anything they were selling.”

Another Democrat who is close to Steinberg, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, said Steinberg’s reputation is bigger than the current turmoil.

“Yes, there are clouds over the Senate. They will part,” Leno said. “And Darrell’s long career of accomplishment will long be remembered.”

While he juggles the crises and his responses, Steinberg hasn’t dropped his push for new policies he thinks will help Californians.

He is determined to pass a bill that would create public preschool for all 4-year-olds, and has appeared at numerous press events alongside the children who would benefit. He is making the rounds asking employers to participate in an effort to provide more career-oriented education in California high schools. He is pushing a new plan to spend money California gets from the cap-and-trade pollution-control program to build lower-cost housing and invest in public transportation systems.

“We’re going to get a lot done,” Steinberg said, “and I’m going to leave on a high note.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

Read more articles by Laurel Rosenhall

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