By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Sunday, Jun. 29, 2014 – 12:00 am

The anonymous letter sent to multiple California state senators last month ended with a sharp question: “Why is it that the Senate is not listing open positions, for other staff to apply for?”

Concerns about personnel practices and allegations of nepotism are swirling in the Capitol as an investigation proceeds into claims that friends and family of key administrators get special access to taxpayer-funded jobs.

The issue surfaced publicly last month when The Sacramento Bee reported that court records showed one of the Senate’s in-house law-enforcement officers had cocaine and marijuana in his system the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty shooting outside his Greenhaven-area home.

The officer is the son of the Senate’s longtime head of human resources. Gerardo Lopez worked for the Senate for 15 years despite brushes with the law that include a citation for petty theft and charges of drunken driving.

Lopez was fired over the drug-use revelations, but he is not the only one with family ties to key Senate administrators.

The two people with the most power to address personnel matters have long had friends and family on the payroll: Dina Hidalgo, who as head of human resources for the Senate plays a major role in hiring; and her supervisor, Greg Schmidt, who as the Senate’s top administrator oversees a staff of roughly 150 people who handle personnel, accounting and other duties.

Analysis of payroll data and other documents obtained through public records requests, as well as interviews with current and former legislative staff, found multiple Senate staff members with personal ties to Hidalgo and Schmidt:

• Schmidt’s son Jeffrey has worked for the Senate since February 2010, during which time his salary increased nearly 63 percent as he changed jobs.

• Schmidt’s daughter-in-law Beth Schmidt worked part time for the Assembly for nine years until last year. During most of her employment in the California Capitol, Beth Schmidt was allowed to work remotely from her home near Salem, Ore.

• Schmidt’s nephew Kevin worked for the Senate for three years and now works for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

• 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. Most of those with connections to her have jobs in security, facilities or other duties removed from the direct supervision of politicians.

Hidalgo is on medical leave from the Senate and did not respond to emails or phone calls from The Bee. Schmidt provided information only by email. Both have worked for the Senate since the 1980s.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he did not want to comment until he sees the results of the independent investigation he has commissioned to review nepotism allegations. That action came after The Bee report and in the wake of an anonymous letter to a senator last fall that was critical of Senate hiring practices. A second anonymous letter sent to senators last month contained similar allegations.

Patronage long has been an accepted part of the culture at the Capitol, and family members and friends who are hired may be well qualified for their jobs. But anger over the practice has come to a boil now, in large part because some employees say they have nowhere to turn with their concerns, given the power held by Hidalgo and Schmidt.

Allegations that top administrators are using their positions inappropriately are troubling, said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who found an anonymous letter on the subject on the seat of his car last fall.

“Is this the proper management for a public institution? … Is this the right way to hire people? I would say no. There is clearly a management problem,” he said.

“I think most people think you apply for a job in the Senate as a staff person and you get hired based on your qualifications and your talent, not on who you’re related to or who you’re friends with.”

‘An infiltration of family’

Hiring family members is not forbidden in the Legislature. The practice is addressed in the first chapter of the Senate’s employee handbook: “There is no bar to employment of relatives in Senate positions,” it says, except in cases where one family member is supervising another or where conflicts of interest could arise.

Hiring in the Legislature also isn’t subject to the same 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. The Assembly, for example, posts some open positions on its website. The Senate website doesn’t include a jobs page.

“It certainly does have the potential to allow favoritism and nepotism to creep into the process,” said Timothy Yeung, a Sacramento attorney with expertise in public-sector labor law.

Other branches of state government are subject to the civil service system, operating from the standpoint that everyone should have equal access to taxpayer-funded jobs. The state maintains a website that lists hundreds of open positions and procedures for applying. These jobs generally require applicants to take a test, get on a ranked list, wait for openings to be announced and interview with panels of bureaucrats.

The system dates to 1934, when Californians grew so tired of political patronage in state hiring that voters passed a ballot measure to eliminate the “spoils system,” Yeung said. The measure enshrined the civil service system in the California Constitution and created a personnel board to enforce it.

Yet from the beginning, the Legislature was not included in the civil service system. Politicians, who often take staff members with them as they move from office to office, like the flexibility. Multiple generations of some families hold Capitol positions.

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