California Legislature withholds nepotism report

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Citing broad exemptions under California's legislative records law, the state Senate is keeping secret a taxpayer-funded report about Capitol staff hiring friends and relatives despite calls by lawmakers, statewide candidates and public interest groups that it be released.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the Legislature's special records law should be renamed "the California Legislative Secrecy Law" because it grants lawmakers protections that no other public body has available.

"It's very disturbing," Scheer said of the nepotism report being kept from public view. "It is legal confirmation of citizens' suspicions about the Legislature — that the only principle that seems to guide the Legislature is hypocrisy."

Earlier this year, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg hired an outside attorney to review allegations that senior staff abused their authority by playing favorites on new hires. The review was to include whether the Senate's human resources director, Dina Hidalgo, had violated Senate policy because five members of her family work in the Capitol and at least three people got jobs after playing on her softball team.

The Senate last week denied a formal request by The Associated Press under the Legislative Open Records Act for a copy of the nepotism investigation, which was conducted by Heather Irwin of the law firm of Gordon & Rees LLP. According to a response last week from Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt, the Senate paid more than $98,000 for the report.

The response to the AP stated that the report was exempt from disclosure because it was in the custody of the Senate's attorneys, has attorney-client privilege and pertained to an investigation or complaint of the Legislature.

Schmidt also denied AP's request for a copy of a separate investigation into the management of Senate security, known as the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms, an investigation that cost taxpayers more than $41,000. That review was driven by a criminal case involving Hidalgo's son, Gerardo Lopez, who worked in the Capitol's security force. He was fired after an investigation revealed that he was high on cocaine during a gunfight outside his Sacramento home.

Longtime Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard stepped down earlier this year for keeping silent about Lopez testing positive for illegal drugs.

The Sacramento Bee was the first to report on details of the shooting case and questionable hires.

Steinberg said during a media briefing in August that he planned to release the nepotism study before the Legislature adjourned for the year at the end of the month.

Since then, a bipartisan Senate committee approved a separation agreement with Hidalgo in which the legislative body agreed to pay her $85,400 and pledged to keep that report secret. Steinberg said he understood the need for transparency but called the move to keep the report out of the public eye "justified."

"The report itself is confidential because it's the result of a legal settlement," Steinberg told reporters Wednesday. "And making the legal settlement avoided the Senate and the taxpayers having to pay untold amounts of money in litigation that could last for many years."

Scheer said the Senate can't hide documents under the custody of the Legislative Council's Office, and he said Hidalgo's separation agreement would not be a sufficient basis to withhold the report.

The report has become an issue on the campaign trail, particularly for secretary of state, which in part oversees lawmaker's campaign fundraising. Republican Pete Peterson challenged his opponent, Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, to join him in calling for the report's release.

"I believe the findings of the Senate investigation into nepotism should be made public, subject to the laws that protect privacy and confidential information," Padilla said.

Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who is running for re-election in a competitive district, and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, a congressional candidate who received an anonymous letter alleging staff nepotism, also have called for the report to be made public. They said it is particularly important to do so in light of this year's political scandals, which led to the suspensions of three Democrats in the state Senate.

Two are facing federal corruption charges, while another was sentenced last month after being found guilty of perjury.

"In light of that fact, you'd think Senate leaders would make restoring integrity of this institution a priority," Vidak said. "Instead, this cover-up will only further disgrace the Senate."

Vidak challenged the chamber's incoming leader, Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, to "end the cover-up and make the report public." De Leon did not respond to a request for comment.

Pete DeMarco, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, said the minority leader has yet to see the report.

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