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 Quirk–Silva. 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.
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.
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.”
Besides being a political consultant, Rafiei also happens to be the co-founder of WeCann, a company based near downtown Santa Anathat 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The anti-SLAPP motion is currently scheduled to be heard in Dept. C20 of theCentral 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 ChiefDavid Valentin.
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.
Ma listed Serrano as a contact for this fundraiser.
Emails reviewedbyThe Investigatorshow 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gerry Serrano (left), President of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, with Serina (right), his wife, at an event in Newport Beach in 2017.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In 2019, when Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly, reviewed more than 1,539 ticket disclosure forms—Form 802sas they are called—to see who received the thousands of dollars worth of tickets the city got each year from Angel Stadium and Honda Center, he noticed an unusual practice: some council members were trying to avoid publicly disclosing the identity of persons they were really giving tickets to by reporting that they gave them to their spouse instead.
But documents The Investigator obtained under the California Public Records Act show Valencia may have tried to go further than this. An earlier Form 802 the councilman submitted offers prima facie evidence suggesting he made an attempt to hide Serina’s identity from public disclosure by using Serina Porras, her maiden name, instead of Serina Serrano, her married (and legal) one. If this form had been officially filed with the city under her maiden name, it would have been much harder to link her to Gerry.
Screenshot of the withdrawn Form 802 with Serina’s maiden name.
In a followup message, Torres told Serina that he got this information directly from the councilman. “I was unaware that we had your old name filed,” he typed. But in a stunning admission, he acknowledged to Serina he knew what her legal name was: “Frankly, I used Serina Serrano for this email thread because that was your apparent name based on your email address.” Indeed, The Investigator has an unredacted copy of her personal email address and can confirm he was using it to communicate with her.
Though Torres would later claim Valencia was “unaware of the name change,” all of this begs the question of how he knew Serina’s maiden name was Porras? Furthermore, the councilman himself most likely provided his city council assistant with her personal email address. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume since that email has Serrano as her last name, that’s how she identifies herself? Perhaps it should be noted she uses it as a last name on all of her identifiable social media accounts as well.
Under California state law, there are criminal statutes—specifically Penal Code 115—which make it a crime to file a false Form 802 with a government agency. For example, if a person knowingly files a document that contains inaccurate information, they could face a felony charge. However, a document has to have been officially filed with an agency before a prosecution can take place. That didn’t happen in this situation. The Form 802 in question was withdrawn and quickly replaced with a corrected version.
For matter of record, The Investigator emailed Valencia approximately three times requesting comment for this article. We wanted to know the reason why he felt motivated to use Serina’s maiden name on the original Form 802 he submitted, then later withdrew due to her questioning why it was being used. We were hoping that his reply would put our concerns about this matter to rest. But so far, the dapper councilman from District 4 hasn’t bothered responding to any of the messages we sent him.
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