A photo of lawmakers partying on a Capitol balcony Thursday night took on added significance Friday as news broke that one of them was arrested hours later on suspicion of drunken driving.
The California Highway Patrol arrested Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, shortly after 2:30 a.m. after officers said they saw him drive a state-issued car the wrong way down a one-way street near the Capitol. Around 11 p.m., Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, also a Democrat from San Diego, had posted a picture on Twitter of Hueso, his shirt partially untucked, and four other Democratic lawmakers. Framed by the white columns of the Capitol, they all had drinks in hand.
“Loving my Latino Caucus boys,” Gonzalez wrote in a post accompanying the picture.
It wasn’t the first time legislators knocked back a few drinks on the Assembly balcony that faces L Street. It probably won’t be the last.
But the picture illustrating the party atmosphere that can occur at the Capitol pointed to political perils in an age of social media. For as the legislators reveled, the world watched.
By the time lawmakers headed to work Friday morning, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had posted Hueso’s arrest on its online jail records, and the photo on the balcony was deleted from Gonzalez’s Twitter account.
But two people who captured the images earlier sent them to The Sacramento Bee. And another person who recorded loud singing coming from the Capitol balcony around 11:30 p.m. sent a reporter an audio file.
“There are eyes and ears everywhere,” said former lawmaker Bob Dutton, a Republican who spent a decade in the Legislature.
With his arrest, Hueso became the fourth legislator in the past five years to be accused of drunken driving.
Assemblyman Roger Hernández of West Covina, in the picture with Hueso, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2012 and found not guilty by a Contra Costa County jury. Also accused of drunken driving were Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach, who was cited in 2011, and Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, who pleaded no contest after an arrest in 2010.
Dutton said he and other first-year legislators received some early advice from then-Assembly GOP leader Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, when they arrived in Sacramento in 2002.
“He told us, ‘If you find yourself in a situation where you shouldn’t be driving, call a sergeant,’ ” Dutton recalled.
The Legislature employs drivers who are available to pick up lawmakers any night until 12:30 a.m., said Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg.
“It’s always possible to get help when you need help,” said Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “Driving under the influence is not only against the law, it puts people in serious danger. That’s not acceptable.”
Steinberg expressed “extreme disappointment” in his colleague and said he didn’t yet know if Hueso would face any discipline from the Senate.
“That picture speaks for itself,” Steinberg said. “Obviously, the whole situation, I’m not happy about.”
It was the fourth time in recent months that Steinberg found himself answering for a Democratic colleague in trouble with the law. In January, a Los Angeles jury found Sen. Rod Wright guilty of perjury and voter fraud for lying about his address when he ran for office in the Inglewood area while living in Baldwin Hills. Then came federal indictments for Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee in separate cases alleging they took bribes from undercover FBI agents.
Wright has asked the judge in his case to set aside the jury’s verdicts and grant him a new trial. Calderon and Yee each pleaded not guilty. In March, the Senate suspended all three of them, with pay.
Hueso said he was “going to pursue (his) innocence” to the reporters who greeted him as he walked out of the Sacramento Main Jail shortly before noon Friday.
Less than an hour later, he issued a statement apologizing for “the unacceptably poor personal judgment which I demonstrated last night.”
“As someone who cares deeply about the public safety, I sincerely apologize to my family, my constituents and my colleagues in the Senate for breaching the trust they’ve all placed in me. I accept complete personal responsibility for my actions and any punishments that ultimately come my way as a result of this incident. I will also engage in immediate, corrective actions to ensure this kind of personal conduct is never repeated,” the statement said.
First elected to the Legislature in 2010, Hueso traded the Assembly for the Senate last year, claiming a seat left vacant when Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, won a spot in Congress. He is up for re-election this November against Democrat Rafael Estrada.
Hueso was arrested alone in a state car near 15th and X streets around 2:30 a.m. after showing “objective signs and symptoms” of being under the influence of alcohol and was given a field sobriety test, said California Highway Patrol Officer Julie Powell. He was booked into jail about 3:30 a.m.
Jail records show he was booked with a blood- alcohol content of 0.08 or higher. Powell said the CHP would not release the precise blood- alcohol reading.
Hueso’s arrest occurred hours after he had taken part in a Latino Caucus dinner at the Il Fornaio restaurant honoring Latino legislators who are leaving office. A picture of that event also circulated on social media, with Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez posting a photo on Twitter showing about two dozen lawmakers at a long table covered with white linen tablecloth and glasses of red wine.
“Thank you Latino Caucus membrs 4 recognizing us that r outgoing members. Humility & justice are d guiding principles,” Pérez, D-Coachella, wrote next to the picture.
The event ended around 9 p.m., said Latino Caucus spokesman Roger Salazar, and then several lawmakers returned to the Capitol. The photo Gonzalez posted from the after-party on the Capitol balcony showed Hueso and Pérez arm-in-arm with Hernandez, Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens and Assemblyman Luis Alejo of Watsonville.
“A large group went to the Capitol for more reminiscing, which is the picture you saw. The Members parted ways from there, and my boss took a cab home,” Amy Wilson, a spokeswoman for Pérez, wrote in an email to The Bee.
Gonzalez and lawmakers with Hueso in her Twitter photograph did not respond to interview requests on Friday.
Lawmakers enjoy unrestricted access to the balcony where Hueso and others were photographed, according to Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee. During floor sessions, Assembly members often step onto the balcony to speak in private or smoke.
“It’s a gathering place for members during and after hours and has been for many years,” Gravert said in an email.
There are also no rules prohibiting lawmakers from consuming alcohol in the state Capitol.
“After-hours gatherings occasionally involve adult beverages – just like in any other place of business,” Gravert said.
Joe Tuman, a political and legal communications professor at San Francisco State University and candidate for mayor of Oakland, said it’s “silly to assume that (politicians) wouldn’t enjoy a glass of wine or, at the end of a long day, enjoy having a beer with some friends.”
But elected officials, he said, have to be careful.
“You want to be, I think, just circumspect and careful of any image you put forward of yourself,” he said. “Certainly in an era like we have now of visual social media, and every telephone is a camera.”
By the end of the day Friday, Gonzalez appeared to agree. Returning to Twitter, she posted that she was packing her daughter for college: “Giving her advice, like ... watch what you put on twitter. #lifelessons.”