Carlos Bustamante, the former county public works executive who was convicted of sex crimes, had his pension cut Monday by a unanimous vote of the Orange County Employees Retirement System board.
The pension board members made their decision despite Bustamante’s arguments that his crimes weren’t serious felonies and contending past county executives had done far worse. Bustamante’s attorney, Edwin Brown, said he will appeal the board’s decision.
The board action drops Bustamante’s pension payments from $4,687.40 per month to $3,096.86 as of Nov. 1, according to OCERS staff. That cuts his yearly pension income from $56,248.80 to $37,162.32
“I pled guilty to those things because it was the best thing I could do at the time” financially and for other unspecified reasons, Bustamante told the OCERS board.
Once a high-level executive in OC Public Works, a Santa Ana City Councilman and rising star in local Republican politics, the 51-year-old Bustamante was sentenced in January to a year in a privately run Montebello jail and five years probation for multiple sex crimes against female county employees. He also must register as a sex offender.
He said he was released after serving four months and told the board his crimes were on the border between misdemeanors and felonies and will be “expunged” once his probation is complete. He said a previous member of the county executive ranks committed worse crimes and spent more time in prison, but would not name the person.
But board member Chris Prevatt said “if someone pleads guilty to a crime, as far as I’m concerned, they did it.”
Jennifer Muir Beuthin, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, told the board she experienced a “deep feeling of sickness hearing Mr. Bustamante downplay the significance (of his crimes) … because another official did something worse and served more time.”
Bustamante’s “crimes took place in the county when there was a culture that allowed these things to happen,” she said. “This culture will not be tolerated, no matter how well connected the perpetrator is.”
According to the OCERS staff report approved by the board, Bustamante will forfeit all benefits accrued between July 2, 2009, the date of his first felony, and Jan. 22 of this year, the date he was sentenced. He retired May 19, 2015 and pleaded guilty in December.
During Monday’s meeting, Supervisor Todd Spitzer urged the OCERS board to cut Bustamante’s pension and said the 2013 state law allowing such pension reductions was passed in reaction to government workers committing crimes involving their work and still collecting generous pensions.
Spitzer cited former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona as a prime example. Carona was released early from federal prison last year after serving four years and four months of a five-and-a-half-year sentence. He was convicted in 2009 of federal witness tampering following a corruption investigation. After his conviction, he still was eligible for a $195,120 annual pension.
Speaking of Bustamante, Spitzer told the OCERS board “while he was paying into the retirement system with this hand, he was groping women with this hand.” He reminded the board that county supervisors voted to pay two of Bustamante’s victims $500,000 each.
Brown, Bustamante’s lawyer, said OCERS staff was wrong to advise the board it could cut his pension, saying the state law didn’t apply because Bustamante wasn’t a state employee at the time of his conviction.
But OCERS lawyers said the law was changed in 2014 to cover those who belong to pension systems at the time of their convictions even if they have quit or been fired from their government jobs before then.
The law doesn’t apply to Carona and others who were convicted before the law went into effect.
Following the hearing, Brown told reporters Bustamante is “back working, making a living” and “picking the pieces up.” He declined to give specifics but said Bustamante’s new job is “in the private sector.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.