When he took over the leadership of the state Senate last year, Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) faced the herculean task of restoring the public’s faith in that scandal-plagued body and its wayward members. The preceding months had been characterized by a series of embarrassing episodes — and worse — including but not limited to corruption charges, a DUI arrest, a fraud conviction, allegations of nepotism and drug use.
Something had to be done. But the Senate president pro tem made a serious misjudgment by establishing an overnight “security service” this session that the Sacramento Bee reported was really created to drive drunk senators home from bars, parties and fundraisers.
Such a service, if it in fact exists, makes a certain amount of sense, because senators have been caught driving under the influence with some regularity over the years. Most recently, Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) was arrested in August after being stopped about 2:45 a.m. for driving the wrong way on a one-way street in downtown Sacramento. He later pleaded no contest to a “wet reckless” charge involving alcohol.
But De León’s office says — emphatically — that shuttling inebriated senators was not the reason for hiring the two new graveyard security staffers, though they would of course drive home such a member if requested. The main responsibility of the midnight to 6 a.m. service is to escort Senate employees to their cars if they work late. Senate staff often park in remote lots, and downtown Sacramento can be scary at night. The overnight shift also answers extra-early and super-late airport pickup or drop-off calls from senators.
Either way, we don’t like it. If this is really a taxpayer-funded taxi service for senators who have consumed too much alcohol, that’s an outrage and an embarrassment. Why can’t they call Uber or Lyft like anyone else, assuming they are still competent to use their cellphones? And if that’s not the purpose — if it’s a publicly funded fly-away shuttle for Senate members heading to the airport — well, why is that necessary either? Don’t the senators’ existing $163 per diems pay for the costs associated with coming to Sacramento during session?
De León should ask himself whether the benefits of this late-night security service are worth the additional setback to the reputation of the upper house. Probably not, especially because the service has been underutilized, with only about 20 calls in four months.
It’s not so much an issue of cost; the two new security staffers are working under contract with no benefits and only during the legislative session, and their pay is easily covered by the more than 7% in reductions De León has made elsewhere in the Senate’s internal budget. It’s an issue of perception. After Sen. Leland Yee was indicted on corruption and gunrunning charges, and Sen. Ron Calderon was charged with accepting bribes, and Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted for lying about living in his district, it’s time to take steps that make the Senate look better, not worse.