HAYWARD, Calif. — It was just an accident, California Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi's representatives say. The lawmaker walked out of Neiman Marcus without paying $2,500 for leather pants, a skirt and a blouse because she was distracted while talking on her cell phone .
Later, a more dire-sounding explanation emerged: the absent-mindedness, her lawyer said, was partly due to the effects of a benign brain tumor for which she is taking medication.
Hayashi apologized from the state Capitol last week, and some fellow lawmakers expressed sympathy and support.
Back in her district across the bay from San Francisco, however, there's no clear consensus of opinion about what happened.
Many residents said they hadn't heard about the shoplifting or the medical diagnosis, or they shrugged with indifference when told.
But others said Hayashi, who heads the powerful Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee and is considering a state Senate run, has more explaining to do.
"We want to know the truth," Hayward-resident Michael Howey said outside a Safeway not far from Hayashi's district office. "Health matters are not always everyone's business, but in her position, it is the voter's business to know if their elected leader is competent for the job."
Hayashi's spokesman Ross Warren has said the three-term lawmaker, who is prevented from running again because of term limits, has no plans to resign. Her lawyer, Douglas Rappaport, has said the tumor is being treated and no longer affects her concentration or judgment.
No details have been disclosed about the benign brain tumor or the medication used to treat it. Warren said outside a San Francisco court, where Hayashi pleaded no contest to the shoplifting charge Jan. 6 that he is not sure when she was diagnosed. "This has been around for a while." He did not return calls to The Associated Press.
Assembly Speaker John Perez issued a statement saying that, with the close of the legal case, he is confident "she will continue to ably serve her constituents with the same talent and passion she has displayed throughout her time in office." He also expressed hopes for a "speedy recovery from her recent diagnosis."
Perez's spokesman John Vigna did not return a call for additional comment.
There are benign tumors that can be treated with medication, such as a pituitary tumor.
Dr. Paul Muizelaar, professor and chair of neurological surgery at UC Davis Cancer Center, said a large tumor pressing on the frontal lobe could affect a person's behavior but would require surgery not medication for treatment.
Muizelaar, who is not Hayashi's doctor, said epilepsy can result from some tumors and affect personality, but generally doesn't cause a loss in judgment.
In her apology, Hayashi called the incident a "painful experience" and said her medical condition "may have complicated the situation. However I want to be clear that I take full responsibility for my actions."
She said she "is taking steps to deal with my health and continuing to work hard for my district and the people of California."
Hayashi was sentenced to three years of probation, ordered to pay $180 in fines and court costs and told to stay at least 50 feet away from the Neiman Marcus store. The charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor — a move with which prosecutors agreed, noting Hayashi has no previous criminal record. Stephanie Ong Stillman, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Hayashi's health didn't factor into the decision.
Hayward resident Tommy Viar said the punishment appeared fair.
"I think they did right," he said, while sipping coffee outside a Starbucks. "She didn't have a record. And maybe she did accidentally walk out of the store. She certainly has enough money to pay so why would she try to steal?"
Hayashi, the wife of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Dennis Hayashi, has represented Castro Valley and Hayward since 2006. She's won the heavily Democratic district with more than 70 percent of the vote in the last two elections.
She has raised more than half-million dollars for a possible state Senate run, according to state campaign finance records.
Barbara O'Connor, a communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, said the shoplifting incident doesn't come at a good time. Statewide polls already show dismal approval ratings for lawmakers.
"It's true that voters tend to be forgiving, but not right now. They hate all elected officials at every level," O'Connor said.
Outside Tommy's Donuts in Hayward, owner Randi Tran said lawmakers "believe they're above everyone else."
Tran didn't believe the brain tumor explanation because it seemed to be offered out of the blue and without many details.
"It just seemed sort of ridiculous," she said.
But Howey's brother, Louis Howey, also speaking outside Safeway, disagreed with both Tran and his brother, saying Hayashi probably just made an honest mistake.
"She got caught up in whatever she was doing. It happens," he said. "I think she's doing a decent job. I'd vote for her again."