As the delta variant was quickly spreading across Sonoma County last summer, Dr. Sundari Mase — the county’s health officer who had led the local battle against COVID-19 — was convicted of misdemeanor reckless driving with alcohol involved after pleading no contest to the offense, according to court records reviewed by The Press Democrat.
The July 23, 2021, conviction stemmed from a Dec. 2, 2020, arrest in Alameda County on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense. Mase had previously been arrested in San Diego on suspicion of DUI on May 20, 2014, public documents show.
Details of the San Diego case were unavailable. A court official there said Friday the misdemeanor case had been dismissed and expunged in 2016. However, the 2020 case contains references to it.
At the time of her arrest 14 months ago, Sonoma County remained stuck in the most restrictive tier of the state’s reopening plan, preventing businesses and their customers from joining the resumption of public activity that was occurring in other parts of the Bay Area.
Mase, 55, initially faced two separate counts related to the December 2020 arrest: a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense; and driving with a blood-alcohol level above .08 percent, the legal limit in California, with a prior offense.
She had a blood alcohol level of 0.14, according to court documents. Mase pleaded not guilty to both counts.
The Alameda County Superior Court records show Mase later pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless driving with alcohol involved.
She was given a year’s probation, which ends July 23, 2022, and fined $530. Mase also was ordered to complete a six-month DUI course; not to drive unless licensed and insured; not to drive “with any measurable amount of alcohol” in her system; and not to refuse a chemical test if asked to do so by a peace officer.
Court records show Mase enrolled in the DUI course in August as ordered.
Mase, an infectious disease expert who previously worked for both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, has been the county’s chief medical officer after being appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the vacated post in the first days of the pandemic.
Late Friday, Mase issued an apology via email in response to Press Democrat questions about her conviction.
“On Dec. 2, 2020, I made a very serious mistake,” she wrote. “After socializing with a friend after work hours, I misjudged my sobriety and got behind the wheel of my car. On my way home, I was pulled over and arrested, ultimately resulting in a ‘wet reckless’ conviction.“
In California, “wet reckless” is the informal description of a DUI-related plea bargain in which the suspect pleads guilty or no contest to the lesser crime of reckless driving with alcohol.
In her statement, Mase said her actions were “a terrible lapse of judgment on my part, and I deeply regret that this occurred. I have apologized to my family and co-workers, and I want to extend my regrets to the community as well and ask for your forgiveness.”
Key county officials reached Friday afternoon said they were not aware of the matter.
Tina Rivera, the county’s newly named health services director and Mase’s supervisor, said it could undermine Mase’s credibility and derail the county’s efforts to combat the pandemic.
“I’m just really shocked and disappointed,” Rivera said.
Rivera has been serving as interim director for the past nine months. Her predecessor, Barbie Robinson, was the department’s chair at the time of Mase’s arrest and when initial charges were filed in April 2021.
An emotional Rivera, tearing up at one point, referred to Mase’s arrest as “serious.”
“It certainly impacts not only her personal integrity and credibility, but it then negatively impacts our department and county,” she said.
“Something like this truly gives fuel to advocates who stand against these mandates, stand against vaccines, things of that nature,” she said. “This type of news just really negatively impacts the good work that has been done within this county.”
Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore said he knew nothing of Mase’s arrest and conviction. But in a text message, he said he was “committed to following up with (the county’s human resources staff) to address this appropriately.”
However, the county’s top lawyer, County Counsel Robert Pittman, said Mase was under no obligation to report the incident to county officials.
“It occurred off work hours and is unrelated to her job functions,” Pittman said in an email. “Nonetheless, Dr. Mase voluntarily disclosed the incident to her supervisor at the time.”