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.