Anaheim City Councilman Quietly Employed Girlfriend of Top Serrano Associate as ‘Senior Policy Aide’

Avelino Valencia (left) with Gerry Serrano (right), president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, in June 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Councilman Avelino Valencia III quietly employed Tina Arias Miller, the girlfriend of a top associate to Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, as a “Senior Policy Aide” during a brief period of time between 2021 and 2022, according to public records obtained by The Anaheim Investigator.

Miller, who is president of the Rancho Santiago Community College District Board of Trustees, has been involved in a relationship with Ernesto Amado Conde, a retired Santa Ana Police sergeant known to be Serrano’s closest ally. He is also a consultant for the police union, earning thousands of dollars in fees from them each year.

The job offer was set into motion shortly after Valencia sent out an email to James Vanderpool, the city manager, on Monday, July 26, 2021, expressing that he “would like to hire Dr. Tina Arias Miller as a Senior Policy Aide…. Dr. Miller will be working about 6-7 hours a week. Her hourly compensation will be $31.00 an hour.”

Valencia’s email to the city manager.

Documents The Investigator acquired from the City of Anaheim show that Miller worked for Valencia less than a year. A human resources action report notes she was hired on August 16, 2021. And her last day on the job was March 31, 2022, according to the final Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests that she filed.

However, it’s unclear what Miller did for the councilman that warranted her higher pay grade. For example, The Investigator carefully reviewed his calendar during the several months he employed her and though she was sent to a few city meetings, she appears to have spent most of her time doing tasks that lesser-paid council aides do.

But most importantly, Valencia took steps to ensure the public never knew he had hired her. At no time did he ever list Miller’s name on his homepage on the city website. And despite the fact she had an official email address, she was apparently told not to use it to send messages, enabling her to elude detection from public records act requests.

The last Form 700 that Miller filed.

This isn’t the only time Valencia has tried to hide his ties to Serrano and his associates. Last year, The Investigator discovered he gave city-owned Angels baseball tickets to Gerry through his wife Serina. In the original Form 802 he submitted, he tried to use her maiden name to conceal this fact, but was later forced to refile it using her married name.

The councilman’s questionable behavior spurred The Investigator to look much deeper leading us to not only uncover evidence of his longtime friendship with Miller, Conde, and Serrano, but the police union president’s hidden relationships with other powerful Democratic Party politicians, including Fiona Ma, the state treasurer.

Valencia has known Serrano since 2018. Sources have alleged the two used to “hang out” together at the Santa Ana Police Officers Association headquarters quite often. Furthermore, they claim Serrano was a guest at his wedding to Monica Mungia, who is employed as a principal with the Anaheim Elementary School District.

Anaheim Police Aren’t Investigating Candidate’s Bizarre Claims Blogger Made Death Threat, Vandalized Signs

Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, has alleged that a blogger threatened to kill him.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, he alleged that Matt Cunningham, a political consultant who runs the Anaheim Observer, a right-wing news blog, not only made a “direct threat to my life,” but took responsibility for “hundreds” of his campaign signs “being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them,” even causing his mailbox to be vandalized. “It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police,” he told us.

However, The Investigator has subsequently learned Lal has never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts–some of which can be prosecuted as felonies under state law–to the Anaheim Police Department for further investigation. Additionally, the candidate has repeatedly ignored every request we have made asking that he provide us with evidence that some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of those campaign signs he claimed were defaced by swastikas.

The whole brouhaha between Lal and Cunningham erupted on September 13th when the latter published an article which accurately reported the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector’s website showed the candidate then-owed $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes on his Anaheim Hills mansion. In response, Lal threatened to sue the blogger demanding he “immediately withdraw your false and misleading articles regarding myself with respect to the property tax in the amount of $140,000.”

Lal’s mansion in Anaheim Hills.

So far, no lawsuit has been filed. And an updated version of the article is still online. But in the statement Lal sent, he claims Cunningham “doxxed” him in the first one that was posted, revealing “personal details” about his life which “went far beyond” what is considered public record. “This appeared to be a malicious attempt to threaten my family and incite vandalism towards my property,” he told us. “It succeeded: my mailbox was spray painted that night. I hold Mr. Cunningham directly accountable for this.”

Furthermore, Lal also alleged the blogger threatened to kill him, and took credit for trashing his signs: “I was called on my personal cell phone that evening by a blocked number; the caller identified himself as ‘Cunningham, of course!’ He mocked me and–in a reference to hundreds of my campaign signs in Anaheim Hills being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them–shouted: ‘We have flattened your signs and we will flatten you!’ This was a direct threat to my life! It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police.”

However, Lal never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts to the Anaheim Police for further investigation. Sergeant Shane Carringer, public information officer for the department, told The Investigator via email on October 17th they have “confirmed there are no records showing Lal contacted APD.” And the candidate has repeatedly ignored our requests to provide us with evidence some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of campaign signs defaced by swastikas.

Reacting to Lal’s allegations, Cunningham had this to say: “It is true I unpublished the article as a courtesy to Mr. Lal while I further investigated his claims and explanations, which turned out to be false. I then re-published an expanded version with additional information. The rest of his allegations about me are false–especially his absurd claim that I made a threatening phone call to him. I have never spoken to Hari Lal–I do not even have his cell phone number. All my communication with him was via e-mail.”

There are no records Lal contacted Anaheim Police.

And these aren’t the only bizarre claims Lal has made. In his statement, the candidate says the reason why he didn’t pay $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes was because he applied for a “reassessment” under Proposition 60–which would enable him to transfer value from a previous home he owned to his current one. “For reasons unknown to me, the application was not granted, and the case was set aside to be adjudicated,” he told us. “This adjudication never occurred, due in part to COVID-19.”

But The Investigator filed a public records act request with the Orange County Assessor Department–the only agency through which Lal could apply for a “reassessment”–asking they release all “emails, letters, faxes, correspondence, petitions, and other documents, legal or otherwise, which deal with, address, and/or pertain to any attempts by Hari S. Lal, through various provisions of Proposition 60 or Proposition 90, to transfer the base year value of his last primary residence to the residence he currently owns.”

In reply, the Orange County Assessor sent a letter back stating the “assessor had no responsive records.” Joanne Kim, a quality assurance manager for the department, told The Investigator via phone and email last month that Lal never applied for any “reassessments” of his Anaheim Hills mansion under provisions of Proposition 60, Proposition 90, or Proposition 19. In fact, Kim said that they have no records the candidate had ever contacted them. “We don’t have anything from him,” she reiterated.

In his statement, Lal also claims that his “case is now pending appeal for a declaratory relief regarding my eligibility for Prop 60/90,” suggesting this issue is perhaps being litigated in court. But for some reason, the candidate–who himself is a lawyer by trade–wouldn’t tell The Investigator what venue he was pursuing this matter in, who the presiding judicial officer is, and when the next hearing date will be. He repeatedly ignored all of our requests to provide us with any information about it.

There are no records Lal contacted the Assessor.

During our month-long inquiry into this affair, The Investigator couldn’t find any proof that would support any of Lal’s claims. The fact the candidate himself was uncooperative and refused to provide us with evidence wasn’t especially helpful. Nevertheless, we did find one thing that he was being quite truthful about: somebody has been taking down his campaign signs in Anaheim Hills. And not only do we know the name of the “culprit,” but we also know the name of their employer.

In one of the public records act requests we filed with the City of Anaheim, a document was released to us by the Planning & Building Department which reported that a part-time clerk was dispatched to remove one of Lal’s campaign signs that had been illegally posted on city property near 8225 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road in Anaheim Hills. They apparently retrieved it sometime before noon on Tuesday, September 27th because by 11:50 a.m. the case file on this matter had been closed.

Below is the statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6.

Did City Attorney Advise Councilman to ‘Lie’ About Reasons Why He Gave Tickets to Campaign Backers?

Robert Fabela, City Attorney for the City of Anaheim, speaking at a meeting of the Anaheim City Council earlier this year.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a highly unusual chain of emails obtained from the City of Anaheim last year through the public records act, City Attorney Robert Fabela appears to have advised Councilman Avelino Valencia III to “lie” to The Anaheim Investigator about the underlying reasons why he handed out several thousand dollars worth of city-owned Angels baseball tickets to his campaign backers–something of which the city attorney has emphatically denied.

The emails in question, which were also shared with City Clerk Theresa Bass and Chief Communications Officer Mike Lyster, offers a rare glimpse into a system that holds nobody accountable for misusing any of the hundreds of tickets the city gets each year from Angel Stadium and Honda Center, allowing politicians like Valencia to give them away like candy to big donors, personal friends, and union leaders who helped get him elected.

Councilman Avelino Valencia.

It was remarks Valencia made at the June 8, 2021 meeting of the Anaheim City Council which set into motion the email exchange which led Fabela to offer advice. During public comments, a resident who read one of our articles blasted him for distributing tickets to “well-connected friends and political backers.” In response, the councilman said he, like others, just gave them to “public members who were doing good work for the community.”

In an attempt to learn more about the “good work” these people did, The Investigator sent Valencia an email on June 17th which listed the names of 22 individuals that public records showed were the recipients of his ticket largess between the months of April and May. “In the interest of full public disclosure, [we’re] requesting information as to the type of ‘volunteer public service’ each of the above persons are engaged in,” we wrote.

Of course, Valencia never replied. And that was not entirely unexpected. The Investigator already knew he gave 28 city-owned Angels baseball tickets worth $5,740 to 13 campaign backers who spent $38,938 on his bid for city council–about 60% of all tickets he handed out during those months. The councilman would have had a difficult time explaining to us what kind of “good work” these people did besides helping him win an election.

It wasn’t until in mid-July The Investigator learned Valencia was concerned about our inquiry into the reasons why he gave out tickets. A chain of emails obtained through the public records act showed that shortly after receiving our June 17th message, the councilman forwarded it to Fabela and Bass, asking them for help. “Please see the below email I received,” he said. “I would appreciate your advise [sic] and direction regarding the request.”

Within a half hour, Fabela issued a reply. The city attorney told Valencia he had “no obligation to respond” to The Investigator because it was “an ask for a verbal response.” Furthermore, he stated “policy” allows the councilman to “provide tickets not only for past service, but also to ‘attract’ service.” And finally, Fabela said if he does choose to respond, that this is “more of a public relations issue,” urging him to contact Lyster “to help him with … strategy.”

Forty minutes later, Bass followed up with an email backing one of Fabela’s points. “For reference, I am attaching a copy of our Ticket Policy — Section 5.0 states the conditions by which tickets may be distributed,” the city clerk told Valencia. “As noted by Rob, the policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.”

Fabela’s email to Valencia.

The chain of emails The Investigator discovered–especially the one sent out by Fabela–offers us a behind-the-scenes look into why the ticket system has been constantly plagued with cronyism and corruption. Though part of problem lies with bad policies that have allowed council members to hijack it for political purposes, evidence we have unearthed seems to hint an overly compliant city bureaucracy might also be enabling this unethical behavior.

That Valencia sought advice from Fabela on how to respond to The Investigator’s email is in itself amusing. After all, the councilman had already gone on record at the June 8th meeting as saying he just gave tickets to “public members who were doing good work for the community.” Since all we requested was that he provide us with information as to the type of “good work” they did, why was there a need to consult the city attorney?

But it is what Fabela instructed him to do that is of great significance. Besides the fact he told Valencia that he could ignore The Investigator–and thus stonewall our inquiry–it appears he advised him to “lie” about the reason why he handed out those tickets, reminding the councilman that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service”–a flimsy pretext which doesn’t require recipients to do any “volunteer public service.”

To better understand the context of Fabela’s advice, it was given after the councilman had already handed out tickets to 22 individuals–most of them campaign backers–between the months of April and May. And by reminding Valencia that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service,” the city attorney hinted a different pretext could be used to justify what he did, thus “lie” about his reasons for distributing them.

What is most revealing about Fabela’s email is he never advised Valencia to truthfully answer The Investigator’s questions. Given that taxpayers own these tickets, one would think the city attorney would zealously guard their interests. Not so. Everything he wrote, whether intentional or not, encouraged the councilman to be deceptive. Even his suggestion Lyster be contacted to formulate a response hinted it be a spun narrative.

The email that Bass sent out, however, was more straightforward. The city clerk was correct when she told Valencia “policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.” There is nothing on ticket disclosure forms which require council members to explain why they gave them away. But they do have to identify a “public purpose.”

A Form 802 that Valencia filed in April 2021.

It is not a strange coincidence that on every Form 802 Valencia filed for each big donor, personal friend, and union leader that he gave city-owned Angels baseball tickets to, he listed “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service” as the “public purpose.” That’s because this “public purpose,” as it is currently written, contains a major loophole which enables council members to hand out tickets to anybody on a flimsy pretext.

This loophole was first noticed by Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly. While reviewing more than 1,539 ticket disclosure forms in 2019, he discovered a common pattern among council members who were abusing the system for their own selfish motives: they noted on each Form 802 they filed that they gave away tickets for the “public purpose” of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”

Upon further scrutiny, San Roman learned this “public purpose” allowed council members to disburse tickets for two entirely different reasons: they can give them to “reward” people for “volunteer public service” they have done; or give them to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future. Since council members aren’t obligated to explain why they gave them away, nobody ever knows which of these two they chose.

The ambiguous nature of this “public purpose” has created a loophole which council members have been all too eager to exploit: if tickets can be given away to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future, then the recipient doesn’t have to do anything to earn them. Over the years, this flimsy pretext has paved the way for doling them out to practically anybody–big donors, lobbyists, political operatives–you name it.

OC Weekly cover story on August 9, 2019.

For matter of record, The Investigator did reach out to Fabela seeking his comment for this article. We asked the city attorney point blank if in the advice he gave to Valencia that he was “encouraging him to be deceptive—if not ‘lie’ to us—should he have chosen to respond” to our inquiry requesting he provide “additional information about his reasons for handing out tickets to 22 people during the months of April and May 2021”

“The answer to your question is ‘no’ as your inquiry is based on a misreading of both the email and the City ticket policy,” said Fabela. “The question to the Council member incorrectly assumed that past public service is the only criteria allowed under the City’s ticket policy, and my email to the Council member corrects that and reflects what City policy actually states. I do not see how that could be interpreted as encouraging anyone to ‘lie.'”

Regardless of what the city attorney’s intent was, it’s quite evident that Valencia felt empowered by what he said to continue distributing tickets to campaign backers without fear of any repercussions. Though the councilman has been handing more of them out to local residents and non-profit groups, he still doles tickets to cronies who not only have helped get him elected to public office in the past, but will probably do so in the future.

For example, five months after the councilman got advice from Fabela, he gave a pair of city-owned Los Tigres Del Norte concert tickets at the Honda Center to Gloria Alvarado, who is executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation and a vice-chair in the Orange County Democratic Party. So what “public purpose” did Valencia say this was for on his Form 802? You guessed it: “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”

Below is the chain of emails set into motion by The Investigator’s inquiry into the recipients of Councilman Avelino Valencia’s tickets on June 17, 2021.

Six State Legislators Signed Letters Backing Santa Ana Police Union President’s Bid to Increase Pension

Six state legislators signed letters supporting efforts by Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, to increase his pension.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Two letters The Anaheim Investigator obtained from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) through the public records act show that six members of the state legislature not only quietly lent their names in support of a bid by Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, to increase his future pension earnings, but circumstantial evidence suggests at least five of them received hefty campaign contributions in return for their efforts.

Though nothing in the letters specifically mentions Serrano by name, they do make reference to a set of facts that are only unique to his case. Furthermore, the police union president himself actually entered them into evidence during a video conference hearing about his pension that was held before Adam L. Berg, an administrative law judge, on November 21, 2021. The sole reason why The Investigator became aware of their existence is because Berg cited them in a ruling released earlier this year,

Both letters, which were typed on official state government stationery, are identically worded. The only exception is they have different letterheads and signatories. The first one, dated May 14, 2021, uses a generic letterhead and is signed by Senator Bob Archuleta, Senator Tom Umberg, Assemblyman Tom Daly, Assemblyman Freddie Rodriquez, and Assemblywoman Sharon QuirkSilva. But the second one, dated June 3, 2021, is only signed by Senator Josh Newman and uses the letterhead of his office.

In the correspondence, all six state legislators expressed their deep and underlying concerns about a decision that CalPERS made to exclude “special compensation” earned by an “employee / union president” from being “used to determine the employee’s total monthly pension payments upon retirement.” It was their belief, they wrote, that “CalPERS has issued an interpretation of state law” that was “inconsistent with the clear language and legislative intent of the controlling statutes.”

The legislators argued that several government codes, including one passed by the state legislature in 2018, authorizes “public employers to grant a leave of absence and allow representatives of employee organizations to fulfill their union responsibilities without loss of compensation or other benefits.” For CalPERS to deny this “employee / union president” pension credit for the “special compensation” he earned while performing these duties was a direct violation of state law, they claimed.

But in the months that followed, their letters have so far had little, if any impact, on subsequent legal proceedings which dealt with Serrano’s pension. In Berg’s ruling, issued on February 15, 2022, he wrote that both letters “contain the authors’ opinion as to the meaning” of the government code “and what they believe the outcome of the case should be.” From the judge’s perspective, these were “inadmissible opinions as to the ultimate legal question in this case” and “were not considered.”

Excerpt from Berg’s ruling.

During a seven month period between June and December 2021, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association funneled a combined total of $24,100 into the campaign coffers of at least five of the six state legislators who signed the letters. And all of the contributions, interestingly enough, appear to have been curiously timed: they were either made roughly within 30 days of the date the letters had been written; or within 30 days of the hearing that Serrano submitted them as evidence.

For example, one Form 460 the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee filed with the City of Santa Ana on August 8, 2021 reported that Archuleta, Newman, and Daly each got $4,900 in June 2021. Another form that was filed on January 30, 2022 by the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Political Action Committee disclosed that in December 2021, Archuleta got another $2,000, Umberg about $4,900, and Rodriguez only $2,500.

This pattern of donor behavior is eerily reminiscent of the $15,900 the Santa Ana Police Officers Association gave to Fiona Ma, the state treasurer. In that case, she received the money at the same time her office was working closely with Serrano to draft two new laws that would exclusively benefit him. Likewise, it appears that five of the legislators who got campaign contributions from the police union received the cash within the time frame Serrano first began using their letters.

Regardless, this latest inquiry by The Investigator not only reveals there are no lack of elected officials eager to do special favors for Serrano, but it hints the latter uses the funds of his police union like a personal piggy bank, dispensing them to any politician he thinks will help him with his goal of securing a larger pension. And as we see now, this latest paper trail we’ve been following shows that the state treasurer isn’t the only person in Sacramento who has been implicated in this affair.

Below are the two letters signed by six state legislators that Gerry Serrano entered into evidence at a hearing about his pension on November 21, 2021.

Sidhu Registered Helicopter at Arizona Home of Businessman Who Owned The Catch Restaurant

Mayor Harry Sidhu with his son tossing out Easter eggs from his helicopter at Ronald Reagan Park in Anaheim Hills in April 2022.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Public records that The Anaheim Investigator has carefully reviewed–including a recent petition filed in federal bankruptcy court–show Mayor Harry Sidhu registered his helicopter at the Arizona home of Joseph Manzella, a prominent businessman who previously owned The Catch, a restaurant which at one time was a favorite watering hole and dining spot for members of Anaheim’s resort elite.

The Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aviation Registry shows Sidhu listed “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd” in Scottsdale, Arizona as the address for the certificate they issued for his helicopter in 2020. But according to the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office, that property is owned by the Don and Ana Cardamon Family Revocable Trust, of whom The Investigator believes are the parents of Manzella’s wife, Michelle Cardamon Manzella.

In August 2019, Joseph Manzella filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the mark “Olive Pit Grill,” an effort that was later abandoned because of strong opposition from a similarly-branded restaurant located in Boca Rotan, Florida. However, in the original paperwork Manzella submitted to the federal government in this case, he reported that “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd” was his address.

From the database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Earlier this year, on March 26, 2022, Manzella filed a petition seeking relief under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Arizona District in Phoenix where he declared under penalty of perjury that his address was, once again, “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd,” even checkmarking a box which stated: “Over the last 180 days before filing this petition, I lived in this district longer than any other district.”

Though The Catch permanently closed its doors in October 2021, ostensibly due to financial problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Manzella is linked to a holding company called Tableside Partners Inc., which still owns and operates several restaurants and brew pubs here in Orange County, including the TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Brea and TAPS Brewery and Barrel Room in Tustin.

Sidhu used The Catch for a major fundraiser in 2017.

Ever since the State Attorney General’s Office filed documents containing an affidavit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleging that the mayor committed tax fraud by registering his helicopter at an Arizona address, much media attention has been focused on that angle. But so far, aside from one clever person on Twitter, nobody has really bothered to investigate the reason why that address was chosen.

There is no evidence that Manzella, his wife, nor any of his relatives are complicit in any wrongdoing with respect to this matter, both criminal or otherwise. If anything, this is a story about how relationships between politicians and their friends, which were once kept hidden from public view, have suddenly become laid bare for all to see by the corruption scandal that has engulfed Anaheim.

[UPDATE: Harry Sidhu has stepped down as Anaheim mayor. His resignation will be effective on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.]

Democratic Mayoral Candidate Says Campaign Ended Ties With Consultant Under FBI Scrutiny for Alleged Bribes

Ashleigh Aitken (left), Democratic candidate for Anaheim mayor, with Melahat Rafiei (right), owner of Progressive Solutions Consulting, in 2019.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

The Anaheim Investigator has discovered that a Form 460 filed by the “Aitken for Mayor 2022” campaign committee reported they made a $10,000 payment to Progressive Solutions Consulting, a firm owned by Melahat Rafiei, a Democratic Party operative who is at the center of a corruption scandal involving cannabis businesses and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

The document in question, which was submitted to the City of Anaheim on January 31, 2022, lists on page 77 that Progressive Solutions Consulting received the cash sometime between July and December of last year. The code used to identify the purpose of the payment is “CNS,” meaning Rafiei was consulting Ashleigh Aitken on her bid to become Anaheim’s next mayor.

In response to several questions The Investigator posed to Aitken about her relationship with Rafiei, the mayoral candidate acknowledged her “campaign contracted with Progressive Solutions Consulting at the end of 2021,” but said “we terminated our relationship with the company in February when Melahat Rafiei informed us that she was the subject of an investigation.”

On Thursday, Rafiei admitted to the Voice of OC she was “CW1,” a cooperating witness mentioned in an affidavit the Federal Bureau of Investigation filed in federal court to support criminal charges against Todd Ament, former president and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. However, she has denied allegations she tried to bribe public officials in the City of Irvine.

Besides being a political consultant, Rafiei also happens to be the co-founder of WeCann, a company based near downtown Santa Ana that boasts itself as a “one-stop shop for cannabis entrepreneurs,” helping them with a wide array of issues ranging from “real estate acquisition and disposition, licensing fulfillment, business and investment consulting, and public advocacy.”

Furthermore, Rafiei, who is a resident of Anaheim Hills, not only is a member of the Cultural and Heritage Commission of the City of Anaheim, but was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2021 to serve on the Board of Directors of the Orange County Fair Board in Costa Mesa, a deliberative body of which Aitken has also been a part of since 2012.

Santa Ana Police Union Made $10,000 Donation to Blog Run by Political Consultant Tied to Anaheim Chamber

Matt Cunningham (left), Editor & Publisher of the OC Independent, with his wife Laura (right), President & CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

The Anaheim Investigator has acquired a copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association which reports they made a $10,000 donation to the OC Independent, a right-wing news blog started last year by Matt Cunningham, a well-known political consultant with deep ties to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the Orange County Republican Party.

Reliable sources have told The Investigator that Cunningham, along with several associates, attended the September board meeting and delivered a presentation about his new blog, OC Independent, to members of that body. In addition, they claim shortly after he finished speaking, Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, actively lobbied the board to write out a check to help fund it.

The Investigator first became aware of this matter back in December when it obtained emails exchanged between police officers stating the owner of the Anaheim Independent had gotten $10,000 from Serrano for his new blog and alleged it might be used as a platform to attack certain Santa Ana politicians. The Anaheim Independent is the previous name of the Anaheim Observer, an older blog that Cunningham still operates.

Excerpt from the board meeting minutes.

This newfound alliance between Cunningham and Serrano is yet another unexpected twist in The Investigator’s ongoing coverage of the embattled police union president of whom, at least from our perspective, has made what could be aptly described as a Faustian bargain with a political consultant who is sometimes at odds with–if not been completely opposed to–the goals of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

For example, on April 2, 2020, Cunningham made an urgent appeal to all of his Santa Ana friends on Facebook to vote “no” on the recall of Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, a right-wing Republican the police union spent $341,000 to remove from her seat. Beneath his message was one of her anti-recall videos which not only portrayed Serrano as a greedy “union boss,” but characterized people like him as “bullies.”

Furthermore, Serrano’s alliance with Cunningham becomes even more bizarre over the fact the company the latter hired to set up the OC Independent website, HashtagPinpoint, is run by Pasquale Talarico, a former Deputy Chief of Staff for ex-State Senator John M. W. Moorlach, a politician who literally built his entire career on calling for drastic cuts to public employee pensions, especially for law enforcement personnel.

According to OpenSecrets, an independent, non-partisan organization which tracks the flow of money in U.S. politics, HashtagPinpoint earned about $40,500 from the Orange County Republican Party in 2020, making them their top vendor that year. Another one of their clients is the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, of which Cunningham’s wife, Laura, took over the reigns as President and CEO at the end of March.

Another firm tied to the OC Independent, albeit loosely, is GC Strategies, LLC, owned by Cameron Wessel. Earlier this year, Briana Walker, a Mission Viejo activist, not only discovered one of its employees was writing for this blog, but that Wessel opened an office a few doors down from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Walker also noted he has a contract with the City of Anaheim to be Councilman Trevor O’Neil’s senior policy aide.

The Investigator has been aware for quite some time now that O’Neil is a close friend of Cunningham, even occasionally stumbling across email communications between the two during routine public records act requests. However, what is not known publicly is that both men have had a longstanding relationship with Fred Whitaker, a local attorney who has been chairman of the Orange County Republican Party since 2015.

Cunningham and Whitaker.

There is no evidence the OC Independent receives any direct funding from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But it is not a coincidence many political consultants with links to the Orange County Republican Party gravitate to this business advocacy group. This entity has always been an important hub of social networks for jobs because it is connected to many key players in industry and government.

For matter of record, The Investigator emailed several questions to Cunningham asking him about the $10,000 donation he received from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, if he had conversations with Serrano or anybody else about the OC Independent running “negative articles about certain Santa Ana politicians,” and if he plans to approach other public employee unions for money to help fund this blog.

In response to our inquiry, Cunningham wrote the following:

OC Independent, like other independent news organizations, has a broad base of supporters to pursue its mission. We will not sell, share or trade our donors’ names or personal information with any other entity, nor send mailings to our donors on behalf of other organizations to respect donor privacy. As editor, I ensure our news stories are researched thoroughly, all subjects and stakeholders have an opportunity to comment, and then present the news to the public.

The Investigator also made three attempts to contact Serrano about this matter, emailing him questions quite similar to those we posed to Cunningham. But despite giving him an ample amount of time to issue a response, the police union president so far has not bothered replying to any of our messages. However, if we do eventually hear from him, we will most assuredly let our readers know.

Below is copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

State Treasurer Might Have to Testify in Court if Lawsuit by Santa Ana Police Union President Isn’t Quashed

California State Treasurer Fiona Ma has been named in court documents filed by attorneys representing Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a stunning development, an anti-SLAPP motion recently filed in Orange County Superior Court by attorneys representing David Valentin, chief of the Santa Ana Police Department, names Fiona Ma, the state treasurer, and suggests she might end up being called to testify as a witness in court if they are unable to convince a judge to quash a lawsuit initiated by Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

The motion in question, which was submitted on February 22nd, seeks to have Serrano’s lawsuit dismissed on the grounds it was “brought primarily to chill and punish Chief Valentin for engaging in constitutionally protected activities” and that its claims “are not legally cognizable, lack factual merit, and are barred by relevant defenses and immunities” because they “arise out of protected speech and petitioning activity.”

But if Valentin’s lawyers can’t get the suit tossed, it’s possible Ma could be subpoenaed as a witness if it goes to trial. One key argument they make is that Serrano has not only waged a campaign to “personally and maliciously attack” the police chief and other city officials as part of an effort to “reverse a CalPERS decision” which limits his future pension earnings, but that he has even used “union money” to pursue this goal.

Excerpt from the anti-SLAPP motion.

On page 11, the motion devotes an entire paragraph to evidence The Anaheim Investigator uncovered showing that Ma tried to help Serrano increase his pension by backing two new laws that would exempt him from rules which prohibit the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) from giving him service credit for “special compensation” earned while on a leave of absence from his duties as a police sergeant.

Emails revealed that the state treasurer, her executive staff, and employees of CalPERS not only drafted these laws exclusively for Serrano’s benefit, but even shared the proposed text with him. Furthermore, while all of this was occurring, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee funneled $15,900 into Ma’s bid to get re-elected, making them one of her biggest campaign contributors.

It should be noted Ma isn’t the only public official named in this paragraph. Marcie Frost, the CEO of CalPERS, is mentioned. There is also a reference to a “CalPERs official” known to The Investigator as Anthony Suine, Deputy Executive Officer for Customer Services & Support. And Tina Arias Miller, a Rancho Santiago Community College District Trustee, is identified as being the “girlfriend of one of Serrano‘s associates.”

Serrano and Valentin in 2019.

The fact that Valentin’s legal team has brought up this issue is significant. It suggests that if they are unable to convince a judge to quash Serrano’s lawsuit, they are more than willing to put Ma up on the witness stand and ask some tough questions about her close relationship with the embattled police union president, including the role her office played in helping draft two new laws exclusively for his benefit.

And unlike the real world, there are criminal penalties if Ma is caught lying in a courtroom. The state treasurer won’t be able to utter the kind of deceptive remarks she made last month when she misled a journalist for the Voice of OC into thinking the legislation she backed for Serrano only dealt with Senate Bill 278. The proposed laws The Investigator reported about had nothing to do with that bill and were never voted on.

The anti-SLAPP motion is currently scheduled to be heard in Dept. C20 of the Central Justice Center on June 15th. However, a source has told us it will be costly for Serrano to fight and that the Santa Ana Police Officers Association doesn’t have enough money. In the meanwhile, there will be one politician in Sacramento who will be nervously watching this matter from afar, crossing her fingers and hoping it never goes to trial.

Below is the anti-SLAPP motion filed in Orange County Superior Court by attorneys representing Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin.

California State Treasurer Backed Two New Laws to Help Santa Ana Police Union President Increase His Pension

Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, with Fiona Ma, California State Treasurer, at police union headquarters in 2019.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Internal emails The Anaheim Investigator obtained from the California State Treasurer’s Office show that Fiona Ma, the state treasurer, tried to help Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, increase his pension, by backing two new laws that would exempt him from rules which prohibit the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) from giving him service credit for “special compensation” earned while on a leave of absence from his duties as a police sergeant.

Though an attempt to add them to a bill going through the state senate failed, the emails suggest Ma, her executive staff, and employees of CalPERS not only drafted these new laws for Serrano’s benefit, but that they even shared the proposed text with him. Furthermore, while all of this was occurring, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee funneled $15,900 into the state treasurer’s bid to get re-elected, making them one of her biggest campaign contributors.

The Voice of OC was the first news outlet to break the story about Serrano’s aggressive efforts to “boost” his pension. In an article published last August, they made public letters, including one written by Sonia R. Carvalho, the Santa Ana City Attorney, who summed up the police union president’s goal: “During conversations between Mr. Serrano and the City’s special legal counsel, we understand that Mr. Serrano has expectations for an increase in his pension by up to $60,000 per year,” she said.

But at that time, journalists were preoccupied about what Serrano was doing at the local level. Nobody knew he had been in direct contact with Ma, who was pulling strings for him in Sacramento. The relationship between the two grew so friendly that the state treasurer actually listed him as a contact for a fundraiser she hosted for Tina Arias Miller, a Rancho Santiago Community College District Trustee, who is also the girlfriend of Ernesto Amado Conde, one of Serrano’s most trusted associates.

Ma listed Serrano as a contact for this fundraiser.

Emails reviewed by The Investigator show Serrano first began communicating with Ma on September 17, 2020. “My apologies for reaching out,” he wrote, “but I’m in dire need of some assistance resolving a minor issue with a CalPERS audit in regards to specifically my pensionable compensation.” For the most part, the state treasurer remained courteous but faintly aloof, asking Marcie Frost, Chief Executive Officer of CalPERS, and members of her executive staff, to look into this matter for her.

From September to October, a flurry of messages were exchanged between Serrano, Ma, her executive staff, and CalPERS employees, all focused on resolving his problem. But the issue here, as one auditor wrote, is when Serrano became police union president, his pay was lowered. The City of Santa Ana gave him “special compensation” to make up for it. However, since he was the only one getting this type of pay, and was on a leave of absence from the city, these earnings weren’t “pensionable” per CalPERS rules.

By mid-October, it appears that once Serrano began to realize he was at an impasse with CalPERS and wouldn’t be getting what he wanted, his emails to the State Treasurer’s Office suddenly came to an abrupt halt. All discussions about his pension ceased. There are no public records indicating that Ma nor any members of her executive staff had any further communications with him about this matter in 2020. But five months later, there was a new development. And here is where the real story begins.

Ma with Serrano at an event in Santa Ana in 2021.

On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, Serrano sent an email to Rita Clark, an administrative assistant at the State Treasurer’s Office, telling her that he would be in Sacramento the following Monday and wanted to meet with Ma and Irwin Nowick, her senior advisor. A copy of a calendar notification obtained by the The Investigator shows all three of them gathered in a large conference room at her office at 3 p.m. on Monday, March 15th. The meeting lasted thirty minutes. There are no records about what was said.

But an email sent out three days later may offer a clue. On Thursday, March 18th, Anthony Suine, Deputy Executive Officer for Customer Services & Support at CalPERS, sent a message entitled “POA President Compensation” to Frost, the CEO, which contained a draft for two new laws which would enable a police union president to bypass rules which prevented Serrano from increasing his pension. Suine, it should be noted, was no stranger to Serrano: emails show he had communicated with him in October 2020.

Two email chains show Suine’s message was not only forwarded to Ma and her executive staff for review, but to Ryan Sherman, a lobbyist for the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, which represents 3,500 law enforcement personnel in Southern California. Nowick would later send it to Serrano on Thursday, June 10th, who became ecstatic after reading it. “Thank you my friend! You are absolutely, and without a doubt, the best!” he typed. Two minutes after Nowick received Serrano’s response, he shared it with Ma.

Nowick sharing Serrano’s response with Ma.

Then on Tuesday, June 15th, Nowick sent yet another email to Serrano. But he wasn’t the only the intended recipient. It was also sent out to Sherman and Cesar Diaz. Public records show Diaz is a consultant that works for State Senator Toni Atkins, who represents the 39th District in San Diego County. Besides the fact Atkins has been a longtime ally of Ma, she is currently President pro Tempore of the California State Senate, one of the most powerful politicians in the state legislature.

The email Nowick sent was blank, but entitled “language,” and had a file attached to it called “Levyaa Cortese.docx.” Not only did this document contain a copy of the text for the two new laws that Suine wrote in his March 18th message, but it was essentially a proposal to add them as an amendment to SB 411, a bill authored by State Senator Dave Cortese, which would make adjustments to CalPERS rules dealing with retired annuitants. “Can you point me to the amends?” Diaz asked Nowick in one message.

Another email chain shows that on Friday, June 18th, Nowick also forwarded this document to Randy Perry, a legislative advocate for Aaron Read & Associates, one of Sacramento’s most powerful lobbying firms. Nobody should be surprised he received it. Perry’s biography shows one his clients is the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which “represents over 76,000 public safety members and over 930 associations, making it the largest law enforcement organization in California.”

Atkins and Ma in 2019.

Roughly two months after Serrano asked Ma for help, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee started pumping cash into her re-election bid. According to a Form 460 filed with the City of Santa Ana, they reported making a $7,800 contribution on December 1, 2020. Another form shows they gave $8,100 on June 8, 2021. Of course, these numbers don’t reflect the fact Serrano himself chipped in $500 as well, according to the California Secretary of State website.

During a six month period between December 2020 and June 2021, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association became one of Ma’s biggest donors, funneling $15,900 into her campaign coffers. Contrast that with the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which is based in the state treasurer’s hometown. They represent a police force that is about seven times larger than that of Santa Ana’s. Campaign finance data shows that so far they have given her a combined total of $17,800 since 2004.

To put things in perspective, the Los Angeles Police Protective League gave $16,200 to Ma in 2021. They represent about 9,900 officers. Each of their members contributed about $1.64 to her re-election bid. However, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, which only represents 300 officers, gave her $15,900. Their members each contributed $53. Though campaign finance laws limit how much money anyone can give, it’s clear someone inside the latter union wanted the state treasurer to get a lot of cash.

Campaign finance data from the California Secretary of State.

For reasons which aren’t entirely clear, SB 411 was never amended to include the text of two new laws drafted for Serrano’s benefit. When The Investigator asked Noah Starr, External Affairs Manager for the State Treasurer’s Office, about why it didn’t happen, he told us to direct what questions we had about this matter to State Senator Cortese, the bill’s author. Additionally, several emails that we sent out more than a week ago to State Senator Atkins have gone unanswered.

Though we did not reach out to Serrano for this article, the embattled police union president has repeatedly denied he has done anything improper with respect to his pension. In numerous emails and legal documents reviewed by The Investigator, he claims that when he became leader of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association in 2016, he was completely unaware some of the pay he would be getting couldn’t be applied as service credit toward his future retirement benefits.

Regardless of what the case may be, Serrano’s hope for another quick legislative fix from Ma apparently is no longer an option. In response to a question The Investigator posed to Starr, her spokesman, about whether or not the State Treasurer’s Office is planning to ask any state legislators this year to introduce bills that would include language similar to what they wanted as an amendment to SB 411, his answer was quite simple. “No,” he said.

Santa Ana Police Union Spent $2,500 to Help Re-Elect Future Councilman to Democratic Party Central Committee

Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, with Fiona Ma, California State Treasurer, and other close friends.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a highly unusual move, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, under the leadership of Gerry Serrano, their president, spent approximately $2,500 in a failed effort to help then-future Councilman Avelino Valencia III get re-elected to his seat on the Central Committee of the Orange County Democratic Party in March 2020, according to campaign finance reports filed with the City of Santa Ana on July 31st of that year.

Paperwork that Valencia submitted to the Orange County Registrar of Voters shows he raised $6,600 for that race, of which $2,500 was from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Political Action Committee. The rest of the money came from a candidates committee controlled directly by his employer, Tom Daly, a Democratic State Assemblyman who currently serves the 69th District, an area covering Anaheim and Santa Ana.

From a Form 460 Valencia filed for his central committee race.

It is extremely odd for an organization like the Santa Ana Police Officers Association to give funds to a candidate seeking election to the central committee of a political party. But if anything, it is indicative of how important Valencia is to Serrano and his top allies. Indeed, The Anaheim Investigator has uncovered evidence suggesting only friends who are part of the latter’s inner circle are given this type of favorable treatment.

As a case in point, Valencia filed a Form 460 on January 28, 2021 reporting that he transferred $400 in surplus campaign funds–essentially leftover police union cash–to Tina Arias Miller, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District. Sources have alleged Miller is the girlfriend of Ernesto Amado Conde, a retired Santa Ana Police sergeant, who is one of Serrano’s most trusted associates.

Valencia transferred $400 to alleged girlfriend of Conde.

Documents reviewed by The Investigator not only reveal that the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Political Action Committee also spent $2,500 to help Miller get elected to the Central Committee of the Orange County Democratic Party, but another independent expenditure committee they are linked to pumped $2,500 into her bid to win a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

However, Miller wasn’t the only one who benefited from this cash. Much of it ended up in the pockets of Conde, who at that time owned a campaign consulting firm called Indigo Public Affairs, which has done thousands of dollars worth of business with the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. For example, one Form 460 that Miller filed for her central committee race reported she paid him $2,900 for services rendered.

Miller and Conde.

With respect to Valencia, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association followed a similar pattern of giving. Not only did they hand him $2,500 for his ill-fated central committee race, but they spent $2,100 (the maximum) on his Anaheim City Council election. Furthermore, Serrano chipped in an additional $750–perhaps in return for the $250 he got from Valencia when he ran for a Garden Grove City Council seat in 2018.

But campaign contributions aren’t the only things that tie Valencia to Serrano’s inner circle. Last month, The Investigator reported the councilman gave two city-owned Angels tickets valued at $410 to Gerry’s wife, Serina, and may have tried to conceal this fact from public disclosure by attempting to file a false Form 802 using her maiden name. And we have already mentioned in an article published in June that he gave tickets to Conde.

A Form 802 Valencia filed shows he gave tickets to Conde.

Of course, all of this begs the question as to why Valencia is so cozy with Serrano and his top allies. But the answer is quite simple. The Investigator believes the former is only using his seat on the Anaheim City Council as a stepping stone to get elected to the state legislature in the 69th State Assembly District. After all, Daly, his boss, is termed out in 2024. However, to do that, he’ll need support not only in Anaheim, but in Santa Ana.

Regardless of what one may think about the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, they wield a lot of influence and power, if not more so in a top-two primary system where all voters may cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation. Their backing in the 69th District could prove critical in helping a right-wing Democrat like Valencia squeeze past the primary with a small plurality of votes and end up in Sacramento.

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