Capitol Alert

California Senate to review its nepotism, hiring policies

The California Senate is reviewing its nepotism policy, examining its hiring procedures and modernizing record-keeping in its human resources department, according to a memo the top administrator of the upper house sent Friday to senators and employees.

The memo from Greg Schmidt, the outgoing secretary of the Senate, also says the Senate is developing a code of conduct for the sergeant-at-arms office, which was tarnished this year by a sergeant who tested positive for cocaine the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty shooting. The sergeant’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, was the Senate’s director of human resources, causing a torrent of complaints from employees that she used her position to help family and friends land taxpayer-funded jobs. In response, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg fired the sergeant, Gerardo Lopez, and commissioned an independent investigation of the nepotism claims. Longtime chief Sergeant at Arms Tony Beard retired, acknowledging he had not reported Lopez’s drug use.

Hidalgo, 55, announced her retirement from the Senate last week after 25 years of leading its human resources department. In testimony this week in the criminal case in which her son is considered the victim of a home invasion robbery, Senate employees said that for years they did not trust Lopez, but feared his mother would retaliate if they complained.

Their public testimony prompted a handful of senators to call on the Senate to release the nepotism investigation that cost taxpayers more than $98,000. The Senate had rejected media requests to review the report. In a separation agreement with Hidalgo, the Senate agreed to pay her $85,400 and not make the investigation public, except under court order.

Schmidt’s memo on Friday argued for keeping it secret.

“Whenever a serious personnel complaint arises in the Senate, as in any and every public and private workplace, an investigation of the facts is crucial to ensure that problems are accurately identified and that appropriate remedies can be implemented,” Schmidt wrote. “It is core personnel practice in public and private sectors to maintain confidentiality around these investigations so that employees and others are free to provide honest and accurate information to the investigator, without concern that their trust or privacy will be compromised.”

Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who was among those calling for the report to be released earlier this week, dismissed Schmidt’s argument.

“There is absolutely no justification for not releasing the results of a taxpayer-funded investigation into nepotism and retaliation, period,” Vidak said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee.

Schmidt’s memo points out that administrative leadership in the Senate is undergoing a major overhaul – Schmidt is retiring Oct. 15 when Daniel Alvarez will take his position; Debbie Manning has returned from retirement to take on an interim position as chief sergeant-at-arms; and the Senate is searching for someone to replace Hidalgo. The new team, Schmidt wrote, will take several actions “to address both ethical and administrative matters” in the operation of the upper house.

Legislature does not follow the civil service rules that govern hiring in other parts of state government. Under the Capitol dome, there is no requirement to advertise open positions, interview a minimum number of people or demonstrate that new hires have relevant work experience. The Legislature can pick and choose which positions it advertises, and where it does its recruiting. Unlike the Assembly, the Senate website does not include a jobs page.