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 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.
Councilman Avelino Valencia III gave city-owned Angels tickets to the wife of the president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
A careful review of all the Form 802s that Councilman Avelino Valencia III filed in April and May reveals he gave 28 city-owned Angels baseball tickets worth $5,740 to 13 campaign backers who spent $38,938 to help him get elected to his seat. That number reflects 60% of all the tickets the councilman has handed out during those months especially if one takes into consideration the fact a Long Beach supporter got tickets twice.
For example, a Form 802 the councilman filed last month states he gave Serina Serrano two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. Dodgers game on May 8th. Besides the fact Serina works for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, her husband is Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. Public records show Gerry and his union made $2,850 in campaign contributions to Valencia in 2020.
Many recipients of free tickets earn six-figure incomes.
In the article The Anaheim Investigator published on June 1st, we reported about the Form 802sValencia filed in April, pointing out that of the ten people he gave tickets to that month, eight were close friends and campaign backers of his. Five had close ties to unions that each made a $2,100 contribution to his city council campaign last year. Two were top Democratic Party operatives. And most don’t live in Anaheim.
The councilman’s filings for May show a similar pattern of behavior. Out of the 13 people he gave tickets to, ten were also friends and backers. Nine of them–or 70% of all the persons who received tickets that month–either contributed money directly to his city council campaign, or have close ties to unions that did. One is linked to a committee that spent $24,288.20 on his election. And again, most aren’t residents of this city.
Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers & Allied Workers Political Education and Legislative Fund (ID# 850568) made a $500 contribution on June 26, 2020.
Between April and May, Valencia gave 28 city-owned Angels baseball tickets worth $5,740 to 13 campaign backers who spent $38,938 on his election–a whopping 60% of all tickets he handed out during those months. We determined this by gathering names from all the Form 802s that he filed, running them through various databases to identify who they were, and cross-referencing them with available campaign finance data.
On June 17th, The Investigator sent out an email to Valencia with a list of names of the 22 people who received tickets from him requesting more information about the type of “volunteer public service” each of them engaged in. “The rationale you gave in all of these cases is that tickets were given ostensibly for the purpose of ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service,'” we wrote. But he never responded to our inquiry.
For matter of record, Valencia isn’t the only council member who has hijacked the city’s ticket system for selfish political purposes. His abuses are roughly comparable to those of Councilman Jordan Brandman, whose Form 802 filings this year are also highly questionable. Though Brandman has handed out less tickets than Valencia, both have given them to some of the same people–a matter we’ll report about in the future.
Councilman Avelino Valencia III gave $3,280 worth of city-owned Angels tickets to close friends, campaign backers, and top Democrats in April.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Before Councilman Avelino Valencia III was elected to his seat, he told a reporter from Anaheim Exclusivo what his main priority would be. “I would like the residents of Anaheim to know that I am dedicating the next four years of my life to improving the quality of life for our residents,” he said. “I will be selfless in those endeavors; I will put the residents’ needs first.”
But there is an old adage about politicians: watch what they do, not what they say. And evidence is mounting that there is a big difference between Valencia’s behavior as a councilman and his rhetoric as a candidate. Thanks to Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly, we know as a fact that this happens to be the case.
In an article San Roman recently posted on his Slingshot blog, he observed that with the reopening of Angel Stadium and Honda Center due to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, a once “dormant political patronage system” has sprung back to life “with Anaheim city council members able to dole out free tickets to their well-connected friends and political backers again.”
In reviewing the latest filings for April, he discovered not much had changed. For example, Councilman Jordan Brandman, who is a notorious peddler of city-owned tickets to lobbyists, campaign contributors, and even his former employer, gave two Angels tickets worth $410 to a businessman who appears to have been one of his clients at a previous job.
Even Valencia has gotten tickets.
The most astonishing revelations, however, came from Valencia’s filings. Being a newcomer, one thinks he would have been a bit more circumspect in his actions. But San Roman reported that his Form 802s showed the councilman freely gave away tickets to close friends, trade union leaders who helped finance his campaign, and known Democratic Party operatives.
In response, The Anaheim Investigator launched its own investigation into this matter and carefully scrutinized all of the Form 802s Valencia filed in the month of April. The documents not only corroborate the initial claims San Roman made in his piece, but new information has been uncovered which reveals that what he reported was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Form 802s show Valencia gave tickets to ten people, eight of which could be positively identified. Of those eight, all are “well-connected friends and political backers” of the councilman. Five have close ties to unions that each made a $2,100 contribution to his city council campaign last year. Two are top Democratic Party operatives. And most don’t live in Anaheim.
Below is a list of persons of who benefited from his largess: ERNESTO MEDRANO
On all of the Form 802s that Valenica filed, he stated he gave away tickets for the purpose of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.” Maybe so. Perhaps he wanted to encourage charity work in Irvine, Santa Ana, and Long Beach. And it could be a coincidence half of the recipients of his tickets apparently helped steer large amounts of cash into his city council campaign.
But the evidence speaks for itself. The Form 802s make a mockery of Valencia‘s promise to “put the residents’ needs first.” That he decided to shower close friends, trade union leaders who helped finance his campaign, and top Democratic Party operatives–most of whom don’t live in Anaheim–with $3,280 worth of tickets demonstrate that his priorities lie elsewhere.
Indeed, The Investigator believes he 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, Tom Daly, his boss, is termed out in 2024. But to do that, he’ll need to build a base of support not only in Anaheim, but in Santa Ana. That’s where giving away free tickets comes in handy.
For matter of record, Valencia isn’t the only politician in this town who has taken advantage of the ticket system and exploited it for selfish political purposes. Sometime in the future, The Investigatorplans to publish more in-depth articles like this one exposing how past and present council members, both Democrat and Republican alike, have done similar things.
Tony Serna, Vice-President of Agency 51, a Santa Ana advertising firm that has been a hidden force behind Anaheim First.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Much has been written aboutAnaheim First, the faux grassroots organization which, according to legal documents filed with the California Secretary of State in 2019, is controlled by Todd Ament, President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But very little, if anything, has been said about another entity thathas been a hidden force behind it.
If you have ever seen Anaheim First’s full page ads in a newspaper, a slick mailer inviting you to attend one of their town hall forums, or observed members wearing those proverbial blue shirts, you saw the handiwork of Agency 51, an advertising firm located in downtown Santa Ana, literally a block away from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse.
On its LinkedIn page, Agency 51describes itself as a “full-service integrated marketing communications agency with offices in Orange County, CA, specializing in implementing complex, strategic advertising programs.” Founded as a partnership in 2001, it has two offices nationwide: one in Santa Ana and another in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Agency 51 boasting about Anaheim First on its website.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anaheim First was reinvented as a marketing tool to help local restaurants, microbreweries, wine bars, and other businesses survive the economic downturn. For months, residents have seen ads on social media sites, much like the one on Agency 51’sYouTube page, offering discounts for food, drink, and other items.
However, as more people get vaccinated and life returns back to “normal,” it will undoubtedly revert to its original form. At the March 23rd meeting of the Anaheim City Council, Mayor Harry Sidhu reaffirmed his commitment to the Chamber-backed group. He is up for re-election next year. Given Anaheim First is stacked with his allies, he’ll need all the support he can get.
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