Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part project summarizing sworn testimony from court depositions in which former Santa Ana city officials accuse Mayor Miguel Pulido and Gerry Serrano, president of the police union, of criminal wrongdoing. To read part one, click here.
Two top Santa Ana officials, including a former police chief, alleged under oath the city’s police union leader engaged in bribery of City Council candidates in 2016, saying Sgt. Gerry Serrano told candidates they had to agree to fire then-Police Chief Carlos Rojas in order to benefit from $400,000 in campaign spending.
The bribery allegations, about which Serrano has not returned messages seeking his comment, were made in sworn deposition testimony in a civil lawsuit by Rojas, who was Santa Ana’s police chief from 2012 to 2017.
One of the alleged bribery witnesses Rojas pointed to, Mark McLoughlin, this week disputed the former police chief’s account, saying Serrano did not bring Rojas up to him when McLoughlin was considering a City Council run in 2016.
Rojas alleged he was forced to resign after he blew the whistle about illegal activities, including the police union’s alleged bribery, and that he was pushed out as part of a concerted effort by the police union and Mayor Miguel Pulido.
The police union president laid out the campaign money offer in a spring 2016 meeting with Councilman Vicente Sarmiento, who was facing re-election that November, according to Sarmiento’s deposition testimony.
“Gerry made it clear at the meeting that those who would be supportive of removing the police chief would receive the endorsement from the [police union] and those that opposed the chief’s removal would not receive the endorsement of the [police union] and would probably be subject to heavy opposition during the next campaign cycle,” said Sarmiento, who also is an attorney, in his September 2018 deposition.
“[Serrano] would mention that the [police union] had several hundred thousand dollars in their political action committee that they were going to use in support of candidates and that same money to use against candidates that they weren’t endorsing,” Sarmiento added.
“I told him that in my opinion it was improper, it was illegal, and it smacked of a quid [pro quo],” Sarmiento said. “[Serrano] became very quiet after that, and then that’s when our relationship took a turn for the worse.”
Asked by Rojas’ attorney if he felt it was “bribery,” Sarmiento answered “Yes.”
The police union, led by Serrano, spent more money on Santa Ana candidates in 2016 than any other group — about $400,000 supporting Pulido and City Council candidates and opposing their challengers, according to public disclosures.
Within days of the new council taking office in December 2016, they pushed out the then-city manager, David Cavazos, voted to pay him at least $343,000 in taxpayer money to leave. Rojas departed several weeks later and accepted a job as police chief of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), where he remains.
Rojas said he was told before the election about the police union’s money-for-firing offer by Cavazos, Sarmiento, and Mark McLoughlin, a former community college board member who spoke with Serrano while considering a run for council.
“I had been told by [City Manager] David Cavazos that Mark McLoughlin had been approached by the [police union] and had been offered money in exchange for the support, and then if…he didn’t agree to get rid of the police chief, they wouldn’t support him. And he felt that that was wrong and decided not to run for council,” Rojas testified in his October 2018 deposition.
“And then I had an independent conversation with Mark McLaughlin after a Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce meeting down at South Coast Plaza where he confirmed that both [he] and his wife had met and had heard these statements made and this offer made by Gerry Serrano,” the former police chief testified.
Rojas testified he believes the union’s behavior “rises to the level of bribery.”
McLoughlin, a former community college board member and Floral Park Neighborhood Association president, disputed Rojas’ claims in a phone interview this week. He said he was aware of rumors in 2016 Serrano wanted Rojas out, but that Serrano never brought Rojas up to McLoughlin as he considered running for City Council in 2016.
“Nope. None that I can remember,” McLoughlin said when asked if Serrano ever brought up Rojas to him. “Getting old…you forget things. But for sure…no way did Gerry come up and say, ‘Hey you’re running for council, we want you to do this.’ No, not me.”
McLoughlin said he did tell Rojas over coffee before the 2016 election that the “word on the street” was Serrano wanted Rojas out as police chief, but not that Serrano told that to McLoughlin.
McLoughlin also said he was not contacted by the DA’s office or FBI, or any attorneys in the Rojas case, to explain his recollection.
“Nope. Nobody ever came to me or talked to me,” McLoughlin said. “You are the first one to ask me or call or say anything about the whole situation,” he told the reporter.
The depositions provide the the most detailed known testimony about police union bribery allegations that swirled during the 2016 election.
Additional Santa Ana officials testified under oath about alleged police union bribery, according to people close to the case, though Voice of OC so far has not been able to review those transcripts.
The lawsuit also gathered testimony from officials alleging Pulido interfered with police decisions about which illegal pot shops to raid and ran a side business personally renting out city-owned property. Pulido this week said he “categorically denies” all the allegations in the depositions, and declined to comment further or answer questions for this article.
[Click here for part 1 of this series, regarding the testimony about the mayor.]
In December, Pulido and other City Council members agreed to have the city pay the former chief $350,000 in exchange for dropping the suit, which apparently put an end to any further testimony about the alleged corruption. At least one additional deposition with a city official had been scheduled but was canceled, according to a person close to the case.
Rojas testified he informed the DA’s Office and FBI in 2016 about the alleged police union bribery offers, as well as multiple reports of the mayor running a side business personally renting out city-owned properties. The former police chief said he also informed the DA’s Office in 2015 about a report he received that Pulido offered to guarantee permits for marijuana dispensaries in exchange for $25,000.
The DA’s Office and federal authorities have not announced any criminal charges from either investigation, and it’s unclear how thoroughly they followed up on the corruption reports.
Tony Rackauckas, the district attorney from 1999 until early 2019, said he was “very confident” his office’s Special Prosecutions Unit, headed by then-Senior Deputy DA Mike Lubinski, followed up on the tips.
“Believe me, [Lubinski is] very serious about that work. And he went after each and every one of those allegations,” Rackauckas said in a phone interview Monday.
“Now, some of [what] Carlos had to say was material that had been looked at already or been gone over before. I just don’t think that any of it had any real legs. It wasn’t supported by evidence.”
Asked if Lubinski tried to talk to witnesses Rojas mentioned, Rackauckas said he didn’t know and that Lubinski would be the right person to ask.
Rackauckas said he would reach out to Lubinski, who no longer works at the DA’s office and no longer uses his county-issued cell phone, to let him know the reporter was trying to get in touch. Voice of OC did not receive a call from Lubinski, and Rackauckas didn’t return follow-up messages asking if Lubinski would call.
As an attorney, Lubinski maintains a profile on the California State Bar website, though no contact information was listed as of this week.
Serrano appeared in campaign ads with then-District Attorney Rackauckas last year. But Rackauckas lost in November to former county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who had accused the DA of allowing corruption in local government.
“You have a district attorney who does not look at public corruption, and basically disregards the allegations,” Spitzer said in a 2013 video interview with Voice of OC.
“There’s been, for years – for the last decade, just this general sense that you can do whatever you want in this county and get away with it,” Spitzer added. He said Rackauckas had a “tone of tolerance” towards public corruption.
The DA’s office, asked Monday about Rojas’ alleged corruption reports, didn’t have any comment as of Tuesday evening.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office did not return messages asking if the Rackauckas’ office asked the AG if there was a potential conflict for the DA’s office to decide whether to investigate the spouse of one of its employees.
Concerns about Rackauckas’ political ties to investigation targets reportedly was a significant factor in federal agents deciding to cancel their corruption task force with the DA’s office.
Federal law enforcement officials had an Orange County Corruption Task Force with the DA’s Office, starting in 2013, but it fell apart in 2017 partly due to inquiries into Pulido, the Los Angeles Times reported last year. The FBI was looking into whether Pulido was receiving money from a local business, but federal agents grew suspicious about inquiries by DA supervisors and were wary of then-DA Rackauckas’ perceived political ties to potential investigation targets, the Times reported.
Pulido was close with the police union during the 2016 election. He received the police union’s endorsement and campaign support, and after the election helped lead the ouster of the city manager, whom Pulido had long clashed with but previously did not have the votes to remove.
Serrano was a strong supporter of the DA as well, appearing prominently next to Rackauckas last year in campaign ads for the DA’s re-election.
Union President Was Upset About Discipline, Former Chief Says
The union’s efforts to oust Rojas stemmed largely from Rojas’ discipline of officers for misconduct, according to the former chief’s lawsuit.
Serrano was particularly upset, according to Rojas, about Rojas disciplining him after he was arrested in 2011 by police in nearby Westminster for an alleged DUI hit-and-run.
Serrano had rear-ended a vehicle carrying a 7-year-old, asked the driver not to involve police, and when police were called drove away from the scene before they arrived, according to the OC Weekly. The DA’s office, then led by Rackauckas, declined to file charges against Serrano.
Additionally, Rojas said he challenged how Serrano was being paid by the city for his union work.
Serrano is a sergeant with the police department, though the union’s labor contract fully releases him from having to do his police duties, while receiving all of his taxpayer-funded city compensation plus a 35 percent salary premium.
At $353,000 in total pay and benefits, Serrano was the highest paid of the city’s 1,800 employees in 2017 aside from the city manager and police chiefs, according to city data published by Transparent California.
Police Union Bribery Claims Detailed
With Serrano looking to oust Rojas, the way to fire the police chief was to help elect a new council majority willing to get rid of Cavazos, the city manager, according to the deposition testimony.
Under Santa Ana’s city charter, the city manager is in charge of supervising and removing police chiefs.
The police union ramped up the amount of campaign money it collected from police officers, and reports circulated the money would only support candidates who would fire the police chief, according to the deposition testimony.
Sarmiento, the councilman up for re-election that year, provided a first-hand account of Serrano allegedly laying out the arrangement at a meeting months before Election Day.
Serrano started talking about “his dissatisfaction with Chief Rojas and whether or not I would be supportive of removing Chief Rojas,” Sarmiento testified about the spring meeting.
“Gerry made it clear at the meeting that those [candidates] who would be supportive of removing the police chief would receive the endorsement from the [police union] and those that opposed the chief’s removal…would not receive the endorsement of the [police union] and would probably be subject to heavy opposition during the next campaign cycle.”
Sarmiento said that after Serrano described his plans, “I told him that that smacked of a quid pro quo and that as [I’m] an attorney and an officer of the court, he probably shouldn’t make that same offer or condition to me or any other candidates.”
Sarmiento, who supported Cavazos at the time, said he didn’t go along with Serrano’s wishes, and the police union later funded attack mailers against him during the election and support mailers for his opponent, Jessica Cha.
Asked by Rojas’ attorney, Lawrence J. Lennemann, if he felt Serrano’s proposal or demands were “extortion and bribery and corruption,” Sarmiento answered under oath, “Yes.”
Sarmiento said he reported Serrano’s demands to the city manager and city attorney. And he said he believed Serrano was asking him to violate the city charter’s restrictions on council members making personnel decisions under the city manager’s authority.
Rojas, in his testimony, described three people – Cavazos, Sarmiento, and McLoughlin – telling him in the run-up to the 2016 election the police union was offering financial support to candidates if they would fire the police chief.
Cavazos “informed me that the [police union] was approaching council candidates that if they supported firing the police chief that they would be endorsed and – in a monetary way from the Police Officers Association,” Rojas testified.
Did the Union Have Candidates Sign Pledges to Fire the Police Chief and City Manager?
During the 2016 election season, Voice of OC reporters were told by people involved in the election that the police union was having their endorsed candidates sign pledges to fire the city manager and police chief.
Two of the police union-endorsed candidates – Juan Villegas and Jose Solorio – were asked publicly at a videotaped October 2016 forum if they offered anything in exchange for the endorsement.
Villegas answered “of course not,” pointing out he was “not about to risk” his law enforcement career as a sheriff’s special officer.
When it was Solorio’s turn, he didn’t answer the question. “So I have a long history of public safety–” he began, as the audience and other candidates started laughing. Solorio then talked about the number of homicides in the city, which he said were rising, and said the union supported him because of his support for public safety.
In a follow-up interview later that month, a Voice of OC reporter asked Solorio whether he signed a pledge with the police union to fire the city manager and police chief if he gets elected. “I don’t think there was any pledge,” Solorio answered. “There was not any pledge that we had to sign or verbally agree to.”
City Manager and Police Chief Pushed Out
After spending $400,000 on the election, two police union-backed candidates won seats in November 2016 and the council changed hands the following month.
A narrow majority of four council members – led by Pulido – put Cavazos on leave in late December, and paid the city manager more than $343,000 in taxpayer dollars to resign. Rojas started looking for other jobs, according to his testimony, and announced his departure in April 2017.
Rojas said he felt he had no other option, based “on statements that were made by city council members, by city managers, by the city attorney, by a lot of different folks, and actions that were taken by the [police union] president and others that led me to believe that I had no – no other option, that they were out to ruin my reputation and then I wouldn’t be able to get a job otherwise.”
Rojas took a job as police chief of the San Francisco Bay Area’s transit system, known as BART, which he continues to run.
Police Chief Went to the DA and FBI And Their Corruption Task Force Imploded.
Rojas testified that when he was police chief, he went to investigators at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and FBI Public Corruption Unit with the information he was getting about corruption in the city – including the alleged police union bribery and reports the mayor’s alleged offer to guarantee marijuana dispensary permits for $25,000.
The former police chief said he kept the DA’s office in the loop about the alleged police union corruption multiple times in 2016.
From March 2016 through the end of the year, Rojas said he had an “ongoing conversation” with DA Investigator Fred Nichols about concerns that the police union was “engaging in bribing council candidates.”
Rojas said he gave the investigator “as much information…as I had at any given time.”
Rojas said he also met with Lubinski, the senior DA prosecutor overseeing political corruption probes, in person at a Starbucks late in 2016. They discussed “the alleged corruption and the illegal activity that was taking place,” Rojas testified.
Rojas said he also reported alleged corruption to Craig Hunter, who at the time was head of the DA’s investigations division.
Rojas testified he gave Hunter a memo “where I was contacted by a resident who had information on Mayor Pulido suggesting that he was taking $25,000 to guarantee applicants…for marijuana dispensaries to permit.”
“I informed the [City Attorney] Sonia Carvalho and [City Manager] David Cavazos at the time that I received that information, and I went ahead and I forwarded that information to Craig Hunter,” Rojas said of the memo.
The DA officials never told Rojas they had completed any inquiries they were doing into the information Rojas provided, the former chief said.
The former chief said he wasn’t aware of any criminal charges being filed over the alleged bribery, and no charges are known to have been filed. It’s unclear if a DA investigation was formally opened, and if so, whether it was closed.
Hunter, the DA investigations chief who allegedly received Rojas’ memo about Pulido, later said in a legal claim that then-DA Tony Rackauckas “interfered in political corruption criminal investigations…involving candidates that he endorsed politically.”
Spitzer, who was a county supervisor when Hunter’s allegations became public, called them “damning evidence of potential criminal actions within OCDA operations under Rackauckas.”
And last year, Spitzer said Rackauckas “looks the other way on corruption.”
Rackauckas, reached by phone Monday, said the DA’s office during his tenure would follow up on all corruption tips.
“Our office followed up on every allegation made regarding any kind of corruption,” Rackauckas said, adding it was handled by the unit led by Lubinski.
“He made sure everything was followed up on. Unfortunately, Carlos’ allegations didn’t hold any water,” Racauckas said.
Rojas said he also went to the FBI in 2016.
Rojas said he told Special Agent Joseph Nieblas about the alleged police union bribery, as well as “the relationship between the mayor and some of the marijuana dispensaries,” and answered the agent’s questions.
Asked whether the FBI followed up and investigated, a spokeswoman said their policy is to not confirm or deny investigations unless charges are filed. A search of federal court records did not show any charges against Pulido or Serrano.
Union Leader Accused of Bribery Joins DA in Re-Election Ads
This past fall, as Rackauckas faced a tough re-election as Orange County’s top prosecutor, he appeared in campaign ads alongside Serrano, the police union president who the DA’s office received bribery allegations about over the prior two years.
One of the ads featured a posed photo of Rackauckas and Serrano, in what appears to be his police sergeant’s uniform, with Santa Ana police cars and other officers in the background.
It’s illegal under California law for police officers to engage in political campaign activities while in uniform. State law also bans candidates from appearing next to agency vehicles for political activities.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office declined to say if it investigated the Rackauckas ads, citing policy against confirming or denying potential investigations to “protect its integrity.”
Becerra’s office did not answer whether it has issued any official public guidance, known as AG opinions or letters, about when police officers can and cannot appear in political campaign materials.
The Santa Ana police union also donated $2,000 to Spitzer’s DA campaign, the maximum allowed under county limits.
How the Courts Define Bribery
The official instructions for federal juries define bribery as offering, promising or giving “something of value” to a public official with the intent to influence an official act. While there are state laws against bribery, significant cases usually are pursued by the FBI and federal prosecutors, who tend to file charges against local officials under mail and wire fraud laws.
Serious bribery investigations often seek a wide variety of evidence, according to legal experts, including wiretaps, multiple witnesses, evidence of money changing hands, details of official actions taken, and a timeline of events.
“You need pretty strong evidence. You really do. ‘Cause otherwise, whether it’s the briber or the bribee, they’ll say, you know, this is just typical political [business],” said Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford Law School who co-directs the university’s Criminal Justice Research Institute.
“The fact that money is given in a campaign contribution…does not also mean that there can’t be bribery. It’s just a little harder to prove then,” Weisberg said, speaking generally.
“Facts really drive these cases…and a person’s intent really drives these cases as well,” said Peter Johnson, a criminal defense attorney and UCLA School of Law lecturer, regarding bribery prosecutions in general.
“Most times you can’t get into the mind of an individual” and their intent, he added. “But you can show cash received in a parking lot, or a telephone call that is evidence of the exchange.”
“It really depends upon the evidence,” Johnson said.
Mayor and Council End the Lawsuit for $350,000
Rojas’ suit was set to go to trial on March 4 in Orange County Superior Court. Trials in civil cases like Rojas’ often involve witnesses taking the stand to testify publicly, presentations of documents as evidence, and ultimately a judge or jury deciding whether laws were violated and how much money, if any, the defendants have to pay.
But that changed as more depositions were taken, with Rojas’ attorneys scheduling additional depositions of city officials under oath, and new City Council members took office in mid-December.
On Dec. 18, at the first full City Council meeting with new members elected in November with support from Pulido and the police union, the council agreed to settle the case for $350,000. The trial was cancelled the following morning.
Voting in favor of settling the case were Pulido and council members Juan Villegas, David Penaloza, and Cecilia Iglesias. Sarmiento and Solorio, who has clashed with Pulido over Solorio’s ambitions to become mayor, voted against settling.
Under the settlement terms, the $350,000 was to be paid by check no later than Jan. 15, and in mid-January the case was officially dismissed.
Voice of OC intern Brandon Pho contributed reporting to this article.