Capitol Alert

Dina Hidalgo retires from California Senate after nepotism complaints

Dina Hidalgo, the longtime head of human resources for the California Senate, is retiring amid allegations of nepotism and favoritism, an issue that came to light this spring when The Sacramento Bee revealed that her son, a Senate peace officer at the time, was high on marijuana and cocaine the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty shooting.

A subsequent investigation by The Bee found that at least five of Hidalgo’s family members work in the Capitol, and at least three of her softball teammates got Senate jobs after playing on her team.

In recent weeks, several Senate employees have testified in Sacramento Superior Court that Hidalgo’s son Gerardo Lopez routinely received special treatment during the 15 years he worked for the Senate. Their testimony comes as a trial unfolds over a shooting and an alleged robbery that took place at Lopez’s house in December 2012.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg commissioned his own investigation into employee complaints that Hidalgo, who worked in the Senate for 25 years, used her position to help friends and family members land jobs in the Capitol.

In response to an open records request from The Bee, Senate officials on Tuesday refused to release the investigation by Heather Irwin of the Gordon & Rees law firm, citing exemptions that cover documents that “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” or are subject to attorney-client privilege. Senate officials said they had been billed more than $98,000 for Irwin’s investigation.

The Senate separately was billed more than $41,000 for a different investigation of potential security concerns Lopez posed because of the shooting outside his Greenhaven home. Lopez lost his job in May when The Bee raised questions about court records showing that he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana the night of the deadly gunfight. Lopez’s boss, Tony Beard, stepped down days later, acknowledging that he was aware of Lopez’s drug use that night but did not tell Steinberg. Lopez’s wife, Jennifer Delao, is a secretary in Steinberg’s policy unit.

The Senate has agreed to pay Hidalgo $85,400 as part of a separation agreement. The bulk of the money will come in the form of cashing out her sick time, Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams said, and about $13,000 of the package is intended to cover Hidalgo’s legal costs for attorneys who negotiated her separation with the Senate. The separation agreement says Hidalgo will not sue the Senate and that the Senate will not make public “records relating to any Senate investigation relating to Ms. Hidalgo.”

In a letter to Steinberg, Hidalgo, 55, said she is retiring effective Oct. 15 and wrote that “the time has come for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.” She touted herself as the first Latina to hold the position of deputy secretary of human resources for the Senate and described her work to expand “hiring opportunities for women, people of color, the LGBT community and people with disabilities.”

“This program has also helped foster a workplace environment where career advancement is more equitable and more just – not only to more accurately reflect the tapestry of our state, but to diversify and strengthen decision making at the highest levels to achieve the best outcomes in service to the people of California,” wrote Hidalgo.

Steinberg was traveling in Washington, D.C., Tuesday and would not be available to comment, Williams said. Under the terms of Hidalgo’s separation agreement, Williams said, Senate officials are “legally bound” not to talk about her departure.

Hidalgo’s retirement comes amid a broader changing-of-the-guard in the state Senate, in both the ranks of administrators who run the upper house and the elected senators who are supposed to oversee them.

With Steinberg forced out of office by term limits at the end of the year, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, will take over as the Senate’s president pro tem on Oct. 15. Also on that date, the Senate’s top administrator, Greg Schmidt, goes into retirement and Senate consultant Danny Alvarez steps in to take his place. Beard, the longtime chief sergeant-at-arms, retired on Aug. 31. A former Senate sergeant-at-arms, Debbie Manning, has been brought out of retirement to fill his position on an interim basis.

Beard is expected to be called to testify at the trial unfolding in Sacramento Superior Court, in which Lopez is considered the victim of a home invasion robbery that took place after a $100 bill went missing during a night of partying.

Prosecutors have charged Francisco Merjil and Frank Trevizo with robbing Lopez’s house, kidnapping a woman who was there and causing injuries in the ensuing gunfight. Both men have pleaded not guilty. A third defendant, Thomas Ordonaz, is not on trial because he took a plea bargain earlier this year.

Three people, including Lopez, were injured in the shooting that also killed Merjil’s brother, Joseph Merjil. No one has been charged with his killing.

Merjil’s lawyer Chet Templeton told the jury that Lopez killed Joseph Merjil. Prosecutors argue that as a crime victim, Lopez is justified in shooting a perpetrator. When he went outside with a gun, prosecutors assert, Lopez feared for the safety of his friend, the alleged kidnapping victim, as well as his family inside the house.

Lopez “had the right of self-defense and defense of others as a victim of a home invasion robbery,” Deputy District Attorney Katherine Martin wrote in a recent court filing.

While detectives and witnesses have given the bulk of the testimony over the last two weeks, some of Lopez’s former Senate colleagues have also taken the witness stand during the course of the trial. Defense attorneys are subpoenaing them as they work to discredit Lopez.

In August, a Senate clerk testified that he saw Lopez punch a woman after a river rafting trip a few years ago. And two of Lopez’s former colleagues in the sergeant-at-arms unit testified that Lopez routinely got special treatment at work, receiving no discipline for showing up late, leaving early or showing signs of being high while on the job.

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