Capitol Alert

California Senate employees testify on retaliatory workplace culture

They didn’t trust a colleague. Felt their boss wouldn’t listen. Feared a powerful official would retaliate if they complained.

That was the workplace culture described Monday by sergeants-at-arms of the California Senate when they took the witness stand in Sacramento Superior Court.

The testimony came on the last day the jury heard evidence in a trial in which two men are charged with robbing the house of Gerardo Lopez, a former Senate peace officer, before he followed them outside and engaged in a gunfight that left three people wounded and one man dead.

Lopez worked for the Senate for 15 years until The Sacramento Bee revealed this spring that he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana the night of the off-duty shooting. His boss, longtime Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard, stepped down days later. His mother, Dina Hidalgo, announced her retirement last week after 25 years as the Senate’s head of human resources.

Beard said in court Monday that he had been friends with Lopez and his family for about 20 years. He said he would never retaliate against an employee and that he felt he sufficiently looked into complaints about Lopez.

Yet Lopez’s Senate colleagues testified Monday that they felt helpless to air their concerns about him because his mother was a powerful administrator and his boss treated him like a son. The sergeants-at-arms belong to a small unit that works to protect lawmakers and maintain order in the Capitol.

“I was fearful of retaliation from (Lopez’s) mother, who was the head of human resources ... You get on her bad side, she makes your life miserable if she doesn’t try to flat-out get you fired,” said Jeremiah Wattenburger, a Senate sergeant-at-arms.

He said he had once been friends with Lopez but grew apart from him over the years as stories piled up about his misbehavior. Wattenburger said Lopez returned to work after a weekend rafting trip a few years ago bragging about having punched a woman in the face.

He said he didn’t report the incident to Beard because “I figured he would cover for him.”

“I’ve heard him say before that he considered Gerardo Lopez a son. He has a personal relationship with Gerardo’s mother, Dina Hidalgo,” Wattenburger said.

“It was known that they’re a tight-knit group and they have protected him in the past. If I were to tell Tony Beard about that he would immediately tell Dina Hidalgo, and up until recently I didn’t want to go down that road.”

Sergeant-at-arms Sean Whalen also described the relationship between Beard and Lopez as “kind of like a father-son thing,” making it impossible to report problems.

“Any time I went there, I knew nothing would get solved. I might even get retaliated against,” Whalen said.

He said after he and four other sergeants filed a formal complaint about the situation with the Senate about a year ago, Beard stopped talking to them and removed them from some assignments.

“He wouldn’t say a word to us. Wouldn’t look at us,” Whalen said.

Sergeant-at-arms Jamie Deasy testified that she complained about Lopez to Beard about the river-rafting incident and colleagues’ concerns that Lopez stole a knife from a Capitol lost and found.

“I would say the response was nothing happened,” Deasy said. “Nothing ever happened.”

Watching the proceedings in the audience of the courtroom were four retired Senate employees. Among them was Lynn Rasberry, who said the violence outside Lopez’s house had cracked open a cultural problem in the state Senate, where Hidalgo used her position to help family and friends.

“There was favoritism,” Rasberry said of Hidalgo’s son. “If it was me, I wouldn’t have been reinstated.”

The Senate paid more than $98,000 for a private investigation into employees’ nepotism complaints but has refused to make its findings public. The Senate also will not disclose a separate report, which cost more than $41,000, to assess whether Lopez posed a security threat.

Prosecutors contend Lopez was the victim of a home invasion in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2012. They accuse defendants Frank Trevizo and Francisco Merjil of robbing his house and kidnapping one of his friends. Trevizo and Merjil say they didn’t steal anything and that Lopez’s friend left with them willingly.

No one is charged with killing Joseph Merjil, one of the alleged robbers, who died in the gunfight on the Greenhaven cul-de-sac outside Lopez’s home. Witnesses said Lopez shot him; prosecutors argue Lopez acted in self-defense.

Beard and the Senate employees were subpoenaed by attorneys for Merjil and Trevizo as they worked to discredit Lopez and his version of what happened that night.

Beard, who served more than 40 years in the Senate, said he verbally reprimanded Lopez after the river-rafting incident, but that no police report was filed and it didn’t merit further investigation.

“The other side of the story was that it was pushing and shoving by several people, and that essentially coincided with the story Gerardo told me about it,” Beard said.

He said he learned of Lopez’s cocaine use the night of the shooting through the course of a private investigation about three weeks before he discussed it with Senate leaders.

“I didn’t divulge it because, one, it was the first I’d ever heard of it. Number two, in the context of the investigation I didn’t think I could divulge it due to the confidentiality,” Beard said.

Lopez testified earlier this month that he smoked pot with Trevizo the night of the shooting and that he had a prescription for medical marijuana. Merjil’s lawyer, Chet Templeton, asked Beard if he knew Lopez had a medical marijuana card. No, Beard said.

Templeton asked if Capitol peace officers are permitted to have medical marijuana prescriptions. Beard said it wouldn’t be allowed “because he couldn’t do his job and be using marijuana.”

Outgoing Senate leader Darrell Steinberg – who steps down as president pro tem in two weeks – declined to comment on the developments in court. Instead, his spokesman Rhys Williams emailed The Bee a statement saying that in Steinberg’s waning months as leader, he “acted promptly to address the serious problems brought to his attention.”

“The new leader will get to start with a clean slate,” the statement said.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier said the issue won’t be fully resolved unless the Senate reveals what it learned in its investigations. The Concord Democrat received an anonymous letter from Senate staff last year voicing fears about Lopez’s involvement in the fatal shooting and complaining that his mother engaged in nepotism.

“I still am not convinced that the situation has been changed. Granted, people have left. But not knowing what’s in the report, I don’t know what happened or if the situation has been remedied,” DeSaulnier said. “I think it would be healthy for the caucus and public to hear the report. It’s a public institution. This stuff should be public.”

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