Editor’s Note: This is the first 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 two, click here.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido ran a side business personally renting out city-owned property and interfered with police decisions about which illegal pot shops to raid, according to testimony by current and former city officials in a civil court case filed by the former police chief.
City executives, during internal group meetings, brought up reports Pulido personally was renting out space at city-owned properties, including a toxic area of a historic YMCA building, the city’s transit center, and parking lots, according to testimony in a civil court deposition by former Police Chief Carlos Rojas, who now leads the police department for the San Francisco Bay Area’s transit system.
Reached by phone this week, Pulido said he “categorically denies” all the allegations in the depositions. He declined to comment further or answer questions for this article.
Rojas, who led the Santa Ana Police Department from 2012 to 2017, filed a lawsuit against the city that gathered hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from current and former city officials, including the former police chief.
“I know there’s parking lots throughout the city that have private businesses next to them. And it was my understanding that there was some type of arrangement where those lots were being unofficially leased to the mayor or by the mayor to individuals,” Rojas testified.
The police department also received a report Pulido offered to guarantee permits for marijuana dispensaries in exchange for $25,000, Rojas testified.
David Cavazos, the city manager from 2013 until late 2016, said in a sworn deposition the mayor called him to suggest city staff move forward a particular permit for a marijuana dispensary, and called the police department directly to try to influence which dispensaries got raided.
“I think [City Attorney] Sonia [Carvalho] might have had a conversation with the mayor. ‘Mayor, stop it. Stop trying to orchestrate the situation, which dispensaries…you want to have enforced on, which dispensaries you don’t want to have enforced on, which applications you’re working on to try and move them up the list. All that’s got to stop. That’s inappropriate,’ ” Cavazos testified.
The lawsuit also gathered testimony from officials alleging Gerry Serrano, the president of the Santa Ana police union, engaged in “bribery” of City Council candidates with promises of campaign money if they agreed to fire the city manager and push out Rojas. Serrano has not returned messages seeking comment.
[Click here for part 2 of this series, regarding testimony alleging police union bribery.]
The former chief was awarded $350,000 by Pulido and other City Council members in December in exchange for dropping the suit, which apparently put an end to any further testimony about the alleged corruption.
Rojas left Santa Ana in 2017 to become police chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department in Northern California. Later that year, he filed the lawsuit, alleging he was pushed out of Santa Ana for being a whistleblower about illegal activities.
Rojas said he informed the DA’s Office and FBI in 2016 about the mayor’s alleged personal leasing of city properties, as well as the alleged police union bribery. The former police chief also said he informed the DA’s office in 2015 about the report of Pulido offering 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. In November, former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas lost to former county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who accused Rackauckas of turning a blind eye to local political corruption.
Voice of OC reviewed extended portions of the depositions, covering hundreds of pages, though additional deposition testimony has not been made public. That additional testimony contains expanded details about alleged corruption in Santa Ana, according to people close to the case.
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.
In the years leading up to his election as DA last November, Spitzer accused the DA of allowing corruption in local government under Rackauckas’ leadership.
“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 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.
Mayor Accused of Pocketing Money Renting Out City Properties On the Side
In his sworn testimony, Rojas said he learned of allegations the mayor was running a side business in which he personally rented out city buildings and parking lots to private groups.
Pulido allegedly rented out space at the historic city-owned YMCA building for storage for a band or orchestra, received personal “rental income” from unlicensed businesses in the city’s transit center, and unofficially leased out space at city-owned parking lots to nearby businesses, according to the former police chief’s testimony.
The information about the mayor’s reported leasing of the transit center and parking lots came up during meetings of the city’s executive management team, Rojas testified.
The 96-year-old YMCA building is dilapidated and boarded up, and Cavazos said there was asbestos – which can cause lung cancer – in the area where students kept their instruments.
“It’s very dangerous. A lot of asbestos down there, and we’ve got all kinds of problems. And the people that were working there all had masks on,” Cavazos testified, adding city staff told the students to remove their instruments.
“As a parent, if I knew my daughter or son was going there in that building to get their instrument, I would be very upset,” Cavazos said.
Mayor’s Alleged Involvement With Illegal Pot Shops
Rojas testified there were “a couple instances” where he received information about the mayor being involved with illegal medical marijuana dispensaries.
One alleged the mayor offered to guarantee marijuana dispensary permits in exchange for $25,000. Another was a memo Rojas said he received from a detective about an illegal dispensary.
Pulido also called the police department directly to try to influence which dispensaries got raided and which marijuana permit applications got processed more quickly, according to testimony by Cavazos, the former city manager.
Pulido would call the police chief directly, Cavazos said, and Rojas “would listen to the mayor, but he wouldn’t act on it.”
In one case, the former city manager testified, a marijuana dispensary applicant was trying to get licensed, and the mayor called the police chief to mention the applicant and ask if certain actions could be taken. “You know, in other words, ‘Can you move it forward?’ ” Cavazos said.
“That’s a violation of the [city] charter,” Cavazos said of the mayor’s actions, adding the mayor shouldn’t be interfering in the management of the application process on behalf of a specific applicant.
“All the applications should be treated on an equal basis,” Cavazos testified. If there’s a solution to a problem, “it should be for everybody, not for any one particular business.”
Concerns About Mayor’s Alleged Suggestion for Hillary Clinton Venue
When Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was looking in 2016 for a Santa Ana venue to hold an event, they toured a restaurant associated with Pulido that was run by a convicted drug trafficker, according to the former police chief’s testimony.
In the late 1990s, the restaurant operator was convicted of orchestrating a cocaine trafficking operation to move 81 pounds of cocaine across the border from Mexico, according to federal court records.
Court records show additional charges related to methamphetamine in 2007, with law enforcement records referring to him possibly engaging in “alien smuggling” and kidnapping his girlfriend.
Rojas testified he felt something was “wrong” when he walked into the restaurant with U.S. Secret Service agents and Clinton campaign staff.
“Based on my training and experience and working international money laundering and drug trafficking, I kind of looked around, and I said, ‘Okay.’ You know, I got the sixth sense of saying something’s wrong here,” Rojas testified.
“I asked the Clinton campaign staffer who selected the location, and I asked the Secret Service agent as well, and they said, ‘Hey, why are you upset? The mayor’s been with us the whole time.’ And I told the Secret Service, ‘Hey, well, take a close [look] at this place,’ ” Rojas continued and said he knew the man was a convicted drug dealer.
The campaign ended up changing the location of Clinton’s Santa Ana event on June 3, 2016.
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 alleged 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 DA officials Rojas said he spoke with were Fred Nichols, an investigator; Lubinski, a senior prosecutor who handled political corruption cases; and 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. He estimated he wrote the memo around 2015.
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 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 said Monday 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 went to the FBI with the alleged corruption information in 2016 and spoke with Special Agent Joseph Nieblas.
Rojas said he told 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.
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.
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. Councilmen Vicente Sarmiento and Jose 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.
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