Capitol Alert

Complaints of favoritism in California Senate surface in robbery trial

While the state Senate has yet to make public the results of an investigation of nepotism complaints, three Senate employees recently testified in Sacramento Superior Court that the son of the Senate’s personnel director routinely received special treatment during the years he worked there.

The employees said Gerardo Lopez, the son of longtime human resources chief Dina Hidalgo, faced no discipline for showing up late, leaving early, and displaying signs of being high on marijuana while on the job. The employees also said Senate officials failed to investigate reports that Lopez punched a woman during a weekend rafting trip and was caught on security footage taking items from a Capitol lost-and-found.

The testimony, a transcript of which was obtained by The Bee, came during a pretrial hearing in a case in which two men are being prosecuted on charges of robbing Lopez’s house after a late-night party in December 2012. After the alleged robbery, Lopez and the accused robbers engaged in a gunfight outside his Greenhaven home that left three people wounded and one man dead. At the time, Lopez worked for the Senate as a sergeant-at-arms, an in-house peace officer who protects lawmakers and maintains order in the Capitol.

Lopez, who is considered a victim in the case, lost his job in May after The Sacramento Bee told Senate officials that a toxicology report referenced in court testimony showed Lopez tested positive for cocaine and marijuana the night of the off-duty shooting outside his house. The Senate then commissioned an investigation into employee complaints that Lopez’s mother had violated its nepotism policy. The Senate hired Heather Irwin of the Gordon & Rees law firm at a rate of $325 an hour.

The Senate has yet to respond to multiple requests from The Bee for a copy of the report. A Bee investigation this summer found that Hidalgo has numerous family members who work in the Capitol.

At the courthouse Monday, Lopez took the witness stand, describing the rainy night in 2012 when prosecutors maintain his Greenhaven house was robbed at gunpoint. He was also questioned repeatedly about the drugs in his system that ultimately led to his firing.

Two men are accused of robbing his house after a $100 bill went missing during a night of partying that ended at the home Lopez shares with his wife, Jennifer Delao, who also works for the state Senate. Frank Trevizo and Francisco Merjil are charged with robbing the house, causing injuries in the gunfight and kidnapping a woman who was at Lopez’s house that night. Both men have pleaded not guilty. Merjil’s brother, Joseph Merjil, died in the gunfight. No one has been charged with his killing.

As the trial unfolds over the coming weeks, defense attorneys are expected to work to discredit Lopez, pointing out places where they say his statements to authorities were inconsistent and arguing that he had a prior propensity for violence.

In opening arguments Monday, Merjil’s lawyer Chet Templeton said Lopez caused the shooting by leaving his house with a loaded gun while high on pot and cocaine.

“He comes out that front door and starts shooting, because he got punked in his house. He’s the man of that house and he didn’t like other people coming in that weren’t invited,” Templeton said.

Lopez testified that he went outside with a gun to rescue his friend, the woman who he said was taken against her will by Trevizo. Lopez said he began shooting only after shots were fired at him, that he fired all the bullets in his Glock when he felt a surge of pain followed by blood gushing from his back. He choked up in tears as he described his cousin pulling him back into his house, where his children watched as he lay on the floor in agony.

“My oldest was at the top of the stairs. I said, ‘Son, I need you to call 911. Tell them we’ve been robbed and I’ve been shot,’ ” Lopez said.

His wife was holding their baby and his younger son was leaning over him, Lopez said, saying, “Don’t die, Dad. Don’t die.”

Lopez said he had a card permitting him to smoke medical marijuana to ease pain from a 2007 injury. He said he had smoked a marijuana cigar earlier that evening outside a bar where he, his wife, Trevizo and others had gathered to celebrate a birthday.

Trevizo gave him the “blunt,” Lopez testified. The marijuana in it tasted strange, Lopez said, and made his heart race. But he said the pot cigar was the only illegal substance he knowingly consumed that night.

“To my surprise, I came up positive for cocaine as well,” Lopez said.

Lawyers asked if his job as a Capitol peace officer permitted him to smoke marijuana.

“We didn’t have a drug policy in place there,” Lopez said. “I was a card-carrying member of Prop. 215. I was off duty the rest of the year at that point. Made a mistake. Didn’t think too much of it.”

Templeton is making the case that Lopez’s behavior the night of the shooting was similar to an incident in 2010 when he was involved in a fistfight after he and some other Capitol employees went on a river-rafting trip.

“He punched a woman in the face unprovoked and knocked her on the ground. And then, when questioned about it, lied and said he was doing it in self-defense. And that’s exactly what’s happening in this case,” Templeton said.

Lopez had a different version of events when he testified Monday. He said he pushed the woman after the rafting trip because she was attacking his wife.

More details about that incident are likely to be revealed during the course of the trial, including testimony from other Capitol staff members. Three of them already testified last month during a pretrial hearing. Zachary Twilla, the Senate clerk who reads bills aloud from the dais as lawmakers prepare to cast their votes, said he saw Lopez punch the woman after the rafting trip on the American River.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Jeremiah Wattenburger testified that Lopez bragged about hitting the woman to him a few days later. Lopez said that wasn’t true.

Wattenburger said Lopez received preferential treatment from their boss at the time, Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard. He said Beard knew about the fight at the river but didn’t seriously investigate it.

“We knew Mr. Lopez could get away with anything he wanted to at work. Our boss covered for him on a regular basis,” Wattenburger said in his testimony.

“He’d leave early all the time. We’d tell our chief and, uh, he’d say he’d do something about it and I don’t think he ever did.”

Another sergeant-at-arms, Sean Whalen, said at the pretrial hearing that it was well-known around the Capitol that Lopez smoked pot. He said Lopez routinely appeared lethargic at work and had bloodshot eyes.

Attorneys asked how Lopez got away with it on the job.

“Tony and Gerardo had a special relationship,” Whalen said.

“In our office it was known that if you went and complained about Gerardo to Tony that nothing would be done and ... there was always a fear of retaliation.”

Whalen said security footage showed Lopez taking two envelopes from the Capitol’s lost-and-found that he believed contained some missing knives. Again, he said, “my boss wouldn’t investigate it.”

Beard did not respond to a call from The Bee seeking comment. He stepped down from his position as the Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms days after Lopez was fired but was scheduled to stay on the Senate payroll until the end of August and then retire.

At the time he stepped down, Beard acknowledged he knew Lopez had tested positive for cocaine the night of the shooting outside his house, but did not tell Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. The Sacramento Democrat fired Lopez when The Bee told him about the toxicology results.

“I work in a political environment and I’m an at-will employee, so they have the right to terminate you without cause,” Lopez said in court Monday.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee