State senate election brings attention to councilwoman’s past DUI arrest

A suddenly contentious race for the local state Senate seat has shined new light on a Long Beach councilwoman’s DUI arrest in 2012 that wasn’t widely known until now.

The arrest of Lena Gonzalez, a leading candidate to replace Ricardo Lara in the 33rd district, happened while she worked as a field deputy for then-Councilman Robert Garcia.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Gonzalez said she regrets what happened and learned from it. She also reiterated it happened “nearly a decade ago,” before she was elected to the council.

“It has since been fully dismissed and cleared,” she said. “I am staying focused on the residents of Senate District 33 and how we can work together for a better California.”

Some scant information about the incident has been circulating this week on social media and in emails to the media and community groups. The email sent to the Post and others earlier this week was from a nonprofit connected to a campaign aide of one of Gonzalez’s opponents.  

Public records show Gonzalez was arrested after crashing her car into a guardrail near where the 405 and 55 freeways meet in Costa Mesa around 2:40 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2012.

She told a CHP officer she had no idea how she crashed because she “blacked out,” according to court documents reviewed by the Long Beach Post.

She originally denied having anything to drink but later said she’d had two beers, officers wrote in police reports contained in the case file.

She said she was driving home to Laguna Hills from Long Beach but didn’t remember where she’d been drinking before she got in the car alone, according to the report.

The crash was significant enough that it crushed the car’s entire hood and both fenders, bent the Honda’s front end away from its frame, shattered its windshield and windows, and damaged a freeway guardrail, according to the report.

Gonzalez admitted she’d been driving and gave her city of Long Beach ID card to officers, who later found her driver’s license in the car, court documents show.

After failing a field sobriety test and refusing to take a breathalyzer test, Gonzalez was taken to a hospital to have her blood drawn and treat a burn her car’s seat belt left on her shoulder, officers wrote.

After a pair of blood tests, investigators concluded she had a blood-alcohol level of .18 percent, more than twice the legal limit, records show.

Orange County prosecutors charged her with misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence and driving with a blood-alcohol level of more than .08.

About a month after the crash, Gonzalez pleaded guilty to the first count and the other was dismissed, court records show.

A judge sentenced her to three years of probation, 49 hours of community service, a three-month alcohol education program and about $900 of fines and fees.

There was a hiccup during her probation when she was accused of failing to complete her community service in the time allotted, but a judge determined she wasn’t in violation of the terms, according to a record of the hearing.

In 2015, the case was closed. Last month, Gonzalez asked the court to dismiss the case altogether. In some instances, defendants are allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas and have the case dropped entirely if they complete their probation.

In this case, a judge granted that request on Jan. 29 and had the conviction removed from Gonzalez’s record.

At the time of her arrest, Gonzalez was working as a field deputy for then-Councilman Robert Garcia, who represented the 1st Council District before becoming mayor in 2014. Gonzalez was elected to represent the 1st District that same year.

In a statement, Garcia said Gonzalez was counseled after the incident by his chief of staff, told to comply with any court restrictions and told not to drive while conducting city business.

“This was an isolated incident by an exceptional employee,” he said.

In 2017, Gonzalez co-sponsored a legislative item for the Long Beach City Council that sought to, among other things, have city agencies and recently legalized medical cannabis dispensaries create an educational program to inform residents of the perils of driving under the influence.

How the years-old arrest, came into public view this week is somewhat of a mystery.

An Ontario-based nonprofit called Family and Communities on the Rise, Inc., sent the email containing a brief summary of the court case to the Post and others on Monday. It has since been posted on local social media pages.

Richard Alaniz, who formerly worked for the organization and is now a campaign aide to Central Basin Water District Board Member Leticia Vasquez Wilson—who is running in the 33rd race against Gonzalez—denied sending the information.

“I run clean campaigns,” said Alaniz, who said he has lived in Paramount for the last three years, and hasn’t been affiliated with the organization since that time.

The current CEO and CFO of the organization, Manny Nima and Robert Quintana, respectively, also denied sending the information.

They and Alaniz both accused each other of being behind the email.

An unsigned emailed response from the organization itself claims the information about Gonzalez is “widely known,” even in the Inland Empire—which is not in the 33rd district.

Vasquez Wilson’s communications director denied any knowledge of the email or DUI. Jasmyne Cannick said Vasquez Wilson’s campaign focuses solely on the candidate and no other competitors.

“All our campaign stuff is about our campaign,” Cannick said.

When asked if Vasquez Wilson had advance knowledge of the email, the campaign released a statement criticizing Gonzalez.

“Councilmember Gonzalez has violated the trust placed in her as an elected official and with the news of her DUI only now being revealed, it will ultimately be up to the voters to decide if she is best fit to continue to lead in their city and represent them in the state Senate,” the statement said in part.

Vasquez Wilson’s campaign also pointed to a December Facebook comment offering opposition research about Gonzalez’s DUI arrest to South Gate Councilwoman Denise Diaz, another candidate for the 33rd district.

The special election is March 26. It was called after Lara was elected state insurance commissioner in November.

Jason Ruiz contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Thursday afternoon with Garcia’s statement.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram.