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Former Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming he was forced to resign after whistleblowing and as part of a concerted effort by the mayor and police union president to push him out.
Rojas claims in his lawsuit, filed Sept. 26, that he reported a number of alleged illegal activities by Mayor Miguel Pulido, including allegations that Pulido charged $25,000 to medical marijuana dispensaries competing for permits. Rojas claims neither the city nor Orange County District Attorney officials did anything about his complaints.
“I have reviewed the lawsuit and vehemently deny all of the allegations made by Mr. Rojas against me,” Pulido said in a statement through the city’s spokesperson.
Rojas also claims to have “engendered the wrath” of the city’s police union, specifically union president Gerry Serrano, for cracking down on officer misbehavior and disciplining police officers who violated the law while at work.
Rojas claims Serrano met with city council members and candidates before the November 2016 election and offered them political support in exchange for signing an agreement that they would terminate then-city manager David Cavazos and Rojas.
“I’m shocked and dumbfounded that Rojas would make such false accusations and continue to damage our city and community,” Serrano said in an email.
Rojas, who is now police chief for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) in San Francisco, was with the Santa Ana Police Department for 27 years and was appointed chief in May 2014. Early on, he had the support of most of the City Council.
But many of the department’s officers came to oppose Rojas, with their union saying he was failing to fully staff the department, hurting morale among the rank-and-file, and failing to address growing violence. Officers also viewed him as unfair in his discipline, including his firing of three officers who were charged with crimes in an infamous 2015 pot shop raid.
During last year’s election, Rojas’ leadership came under fire from the police union, which spent over $400,000 backing Pulido, Councilmen Juan Villegas and Jose Solorio and a fourth candidate who didn’t succeed, and opposing Councilmen Vicente Sarmiento and Roman Reyna.
In his lawsuit, Rojas recounts alleged conversations between Serrano and councilmembers, including Reyna, who ultimately lost the election and was replaced by Villegas. Sarmiento was re-elected. The lawsuit doesn’t say how Rojas knows the conversations occurred.
According to the complaint, Serrano’s plan was to get support among City Council members to fire Cavazos, then get rid of Rojas, who could not be fired directly by the City Council.
“Serrano also said that if Reyna would do this then the POA [Police Officers’ Association] would support him – ie., do everything it could to get him re-elected,” the complaint states. “Conversely, Serrano said if Reyna would not do this, then the POA would do everything it could to see that he was not re-elected.”
He also claims Serrano has held a grudge against him since 2001, when Rojas replaced Serrano as the department’s public information officer, and because of a 2012 incident when Rojas disciplined Serrano.
Serrano, in an email to a reporter, said “the truth, that the Police Officers Association knows is he was incompetent and had lost the confidence of the rank and file; a vote of No Confidence was initiated, personnel matters were mismanaged and he was unable to implement an effective community oriented policing philosophy.
“In his tenure, violent gang crime went through the roof and in closing what was once a nationally recognized police department saw officers leaving to other agencies something that never occurred before,” Serrano continued.
Rojas also claims to have reported illegal activity by Pulido multiple times.
In one instance, Rojas claims to have overheard a conversation between councilmembers Sarmiento and Sal Tinajero in which they “expressed amazement that Pulido had taken plans from the State of California regarding some type of power/electrical generating plant, deleted the State of California’s name and sold the plans to the Mexican government,” information Rojas said he reported to the DA.
He also claims to have received reports from a resident that Pulido was taking money from illegal marijuana dispensaries so they could continue to operate without enforcement, and the mayor was charging dispensaries that wanted a permit $25,000 for preferential treatment.
According to the complaint, in October or November 2015, Pulido directly asked Rojas to enforce the law against a specific illegal marijuana dispensary and called the Police Department to ask about issuing a permit to another dispensary.
A federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2015 made similar allegations that Pulido and other city officials have financial ties to certain medical marijuana dispensaries in the city and have been directing police to shut down their competitors.
That lawsuit, which the city ultimately settled for $100,000, argued Pulido financially benefited from a collective and “intervened to warn that collective when [city] action was pending, was observed at the collective and intervened with police officials on behalf of the collective.”
At the time, Pulido said those accusations were “unequivocally and categorically false.”
The lawsuit also claims Pulido allegedly collected “rent” from various Santa Ana businesses and from small city-owned parking lots.
Officials with the FBI, IRS and California Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to questions about whether they are investigating Pulido for such allegations.
According to the lawsuit, Rojas reported the issue with marijuana dispensaries to both the city and the DA but neither took action.
The city, through spokeswoman Alma Flores, declined to comment on Rojas’ lawsuit and its allegations.
In his complaint, Rojas also pointed to lawsuits by three DA investigators who are claiming employment retaliation, who have each alleged interference in corruption investigations by Rackauckas to protect political allies, including an alleged investigation into Pulido.
DA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden said in an emailed statement the DA’s office “has always taken seriously any allegations of public corruption and has never ignored any such complaint, certainly not from a police chief.”
“As a police chief he, of course, has the full authority to conduct such an investigation,” the statement continues.
Van Der Linden noted the office does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigations.
“It is unfortunate that a law enforcement officer would state his speculation in this manner without any supporting facts,” Van Der Linden said.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or at 415-484-9286. Follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.