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.
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.
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