Politics & Government

California Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms retires amid controversy

Tony Beard Jr., chief sergeant-at-arms, locks the desks of Sens. Leland Yee and Ron Calderon before session on Friday, March 28, 2014.
Tony Beard Jr., chief sergeant-at-arms, locks the desks of Sens. Leland Yee and Ron Calderon before session on Friday, March 28, 2014. hamezcua@sacbee.com

This story was originally published Tuesday, May 6, 2014

More tumult hit the California Senate on Tuesday, as the longtime head of its in-house law enforcement unit announced his retirement following the revelation that he withheld information from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg about an employee’s drug use on the night of a deadly shooting.

Tony Beard Jr. stepped down effective immediately as the Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms and plans to retire later this summer, ending a 46-year career in the Capitol largely marked by devotion to the Legislature his family has served for more than 100 years.

But with the Senate already reeling from criminal charges against three of its members – including one case of perjury and two of alleged corruption – the incident that preceded Beard’s announcement raised new questions about the operation of the upper house.

Beard, who earned $171,480 per year, was one of the top administrators in the Senate, tasked with overseeing security and maintaining decorum. His departure exposed a fissure between the politician elected to run the Senate and the administrator who was a key piece in the behind-the-scenes work that keeps it going.

Steinberg fired one of Beard’s employees, Sergeant-at-Arms Gerardo Lopez, last week after The Sacramento Bee asked about court testimony that said Lopez had cocaine and marijuana in his system the night he was involved in an off-duty gunfight that left three people injured and one man dead.

Steinberg said he first learned of Lopez’s toxicology report through inquiries made by The Bee. Before he fired Lopez, Steinberg said he met with Beard, who confirmed that he knew a toxicology report showed Lopez had consumed illegal drugs the night in December 2012 when he participated in a shootout outside his Greenhaven-area home.

Steinberg issued a statement praising Beard’s exemplary service and saying it deserved recognition and celebration. But in a brief interview inside the Capitol on Tuesday, Steinberg acknowledged a breach of confidence.

“I obviously expressed real unhappiness with the circumstances of the situation, and I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

Beard’s resignation letter to Steinberg said he had “always acted with integrity, dedication and the utmost loyalty to the state Senate and the people of California.”

“To leave a lifelong career is not an easy decision. But nature itself suggests to us when it is time to go. A new eye is needed. A fresh start is necessary,” Beard wrote.

Deputy Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Katrina Rodriguez will take over as interim chief until the Senate elects a permanent replacement for Beard.

The criminal case stemming from the shooting outside Lopez’s home is heading to trial next month in Sacramento. Prosecutors consider Lopez the victim of a home invasion and are charging three men with robbing his house. Testimony at a preliminary hearing in September revealed that the shooting happened after Lopez and his wife, Jennifer Delao – who is a secretary in Steinberg’s policy unit – had invited friends over for a party following a night out at a bar.

One of their guests, Frank Trevizo, noticed he was missing a $100 bill and and called some friends to come help him, detectives testified. The friends arrived wielding guns, prosecutors assert, stole cellphones, money, keys and alcohol from the house and left, forcing a female friend of Lopez’s to come with them. Lopez got his gun and followed them outside, and a gunfight ensued, according to court documents. Joseph Merjil was shot and killed. Three people, including Lopez, were injured by gunfire.

Lopez told detectives he had smoked marijuana earlier that night with Trevizo, the man who later grew angry over the missing $100 bill. Trevizo’s lawyer Danny Brace said his client had provided cocaine that the two were snorting through the rolled-up $100 bill that started the dispute.

In January last year, Lopez went on medical leave from the Senate to recover from his gunshot wounds. In March, detectives interviewed him about his toxicology results. In September, details of the case were discussed publicly during a preliminary hearing in Sacramento Superior Court.

Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund said Beard learned of the toxicology report as part of a private investigation the Senate commissioned in response to an anonymous employee complaint. He said Beard did not report the information because he believed it was confidential.

Steinberg was blindsided last week by The Bee’s questions about the testimony. On Tuesday, The Bee asked him why someone in the Senate hadn’t monitored the court proceedings involving an employee.

“It’s a fair question. One of the reasons I have acted as quickly as I have and why I will continue to act in a very purposeful way is to make sure that question is answered clearly going forward,” Steinberg said. “It’s part of what needs to change.”

Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, holds a high-level position overseeing human resources in the Senate. She recused herself from being involved in Lopez’s termination, said Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams. But the fact that Lopez stayed on the payroll as long as he did triggered renewed – and largely anonymous – complaints about nepotism in Senate hiring practices.

Steinberg said he plans to “expeditiously investigate” complaints that Hidalgo has helped family members get jobs in the Senate, and will consider changes to the Senate’s nepotism policy.

“I intend to update the Senate’s personnel policy in a very thorough way,” he said.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said misbehavior in the Legislature is not a new phenomenon but that, with separate criminal cases engulfing three of his Democratic colleagues, Steinberg cannot afford additional lapses.

In January, a Los Angeles jury found Sen. Rod Wright guilty of eight felonies for lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008. In February, a grand jury indicted Sen. Ron Calderon on 24 counts of corruption and money laundering. And in a separate case in March, a grand jury indicted Sen. Leland Yee on charges of corruption and conspiracy to traffic weapons.

“Given what’s happened to the three senators, I don’t think there’s much room now in the Democratic caucus for tolerance of any misbehavior,” Whalen said.

“If you’re Darrell Steinberg, you just have to keep a closer and closer watch on what your caucus is doing.”

Former Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman said he had no firsthand knowledge of the incident involving Lopez, but he said Beard is so deservedly well respected that legislative leaders could let him run his office without second-guessing or micromanaging its affairs.

“While I was there, there were a number of items that came up with members, and he was very honest and forthright and didn’t care if it was a Republican or a Democrat,” Ackerman said. “He was very forthright, and there were no games being played in his office.”

Beard was close to a substantial chunk of history during his tenure in the Capitol, including the 1975 assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford in Capitol Park and the 2001 attack when a man driving an 18-wheeler crashed into the building’s south side. Throughout his years, Beard shepherded numerous FBI agents through Capitol hallways as they executed search warrants on political offices, including at least three searches in the last year.

Beard’s father, Tony Beard Sr., was the Assembly’s sergeant-at-arms for many years, and his grandfather replaced light bulbs in the Capitol dome before rising to become the chief of the California State Police.

In 1981, Beard had to tell Gov. Jerry Brown to leave the Senate chambers, a story Beard retold to The Bee several years later. At the time, Beard said in 1989, then-Senate leader David Roberti had grown irritated that Brown was holding an impromptu scrum with the press in the back of the Senate chambers. He directed Beard to toss the governor out or arrest him, an order Beard said he complied with as politely as possible.

A year later, Beard said, he was escorting Senate leaders to the governor’s office when Brown confronted him. “‘Aren’t you the guy who threw me out of the Senate?’ ” Brown said, according to the story reporting Beard’s recollection. “Then he cussed me out pretty good.”

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