Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Steinberg must clean up scandal-ridden state Senate

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

So what’s next for the scandal-ridden state Senate? And what should be next?

Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem, fired a sergeant-at-arms last week after learning – from a Bee reporter – that the aide had used drugs prior to a shootout at his house that left one person dead and three others injured 17 months earlier.

On Tuesday, the Senate’s chief sergeant-at-arms for the last three decades, Tony Beard Jr., resigned, presumably at Steinberg’s behest, after keeping the drug aspect of the case a secret for many weeks.

“(Beard) thought at the time that he couldn’t disclose the information because he heard it through the process of a confidential investigation,” said Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg. “He understands that he made an error in judgment on that.”

Coming after three Democratic senators were suspended after being charged with crimes, the newest scandal – there’s no other word for it – further darkens Steinberg’s final year as the Senate’s top leader.

Steinberg has been taking a lot of heat for allowing the three suspended senators to continue collecting their salaries, although he doesn’t have the power to do otherwise. In response, however, he is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow the salaries of future legislators embroiled in scandal to also be suspended.

Steinberg’s not personally connected to any of the sensational incidents, and he certainly would wish that Beard’s departure is the last bit of Senate dirty laundry to be hung on the line. But if he is serious about his declared intention to restore the Senate’s good name, he must do more than just cross his fingers.

The fired sergeant-at-arms, Gerardo Lopez, is the son of Dina Hidalgo, who heads the Senate’s personnel office. Lopez’s wife, Jennifer Delao, who was inside the house during the outdoor gunfight that occurred after a night of partying, works in Steinberg’s policy unit.

Those connections fuel a widespread belief in the Capitol that nepotism dictates many staff hiring decisions.

Steinberg, like other Democratic politicians, espouses the ideal of equal employment opportunity, but that’s incompatible with a personnel policy of personal pull – if that, in fact, is what is happening in the Senate.

Steinberg needs to appoint an independent investigator to determine whether insider trading in jobs is rampant, with a full public airing of the findings, and if so, must institute a new policy of hiring on merit.

It needn’t be full civil service, although that would not be a bad outcome, but it should be a system in which qualified job applicants can compete without having an inside track.

Without decisive action on his part, Steinberg will leave the Senate with an immense, even career-destroying, stain in his political record.