We have been your lifeline during the pandemic, economic fallout, wildfires, protests and the election. Support us with a tax-deductible donation.
Federal authorities have been looking into the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, specifically seeking information about Gerry Serrano, the union’s president who is an influential and controversial figure in city politics.
The disclosure comes just as Mayor Miguel Pulido has been trying over the past few days to schedule a last-minute special City Council meeting on proposed changes to the police union labor contract.
The city of Santa Ana received two federal grand jury subpoenas mentioning Serrano within the last year, according to the city’s official response this week to a California Public Records Act request from Voice of OC.
The city declined to disclose the documents themselves, saying they “are related to an ongoing investigation” and that releasing the records could interfere with it.
“The city of Santa Ana is cooperating with the subpoenas, and the City Council has been informed,” city spokesman Paul Eakins said in response to questions from Voice of OC. He declined to comment further.
Serrano has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Voice of OC.
Asked about the subpoenas, Thom Mrozek, chief spokesman for the regional U.S. Attorney’s Office that oversees federal prosecutors in Orange County, said he had no comment.
Laura Eimiller, the FBI’s regional spokeswoman, said the FBI neither confirms nor denies the existence of investigations.
Under the federal grand jury process, prosecutors present evidence to a panel of citizens who convene in secret to hear evidence and testimony, authorize subpoenas to gather evidence, and ultimately decide whether to approve criminal charges through a court filing known as an indictment.
The grand jury can authorize criminal charges if enough jurors believe there is probable cause that a person committed a crime, or it can find that burden was not met and thus decline to indict.
The last time a federal grand jury was known to be investigating Santa Ana officials was over the 2014 police beating of Edgar Vargas Arzate. In that case, a federal grand jury was investigating in June 2015, with charges ultimately approved four years later with the July 2019 indictment of former Officer Brian Booker on three felonies for excessive force and falsifying a police report.
Booker, who retired in 2018, pleaded not guilty and a trial in the case is now scheduled for early next year.
Before then, federal investigators and a grand jury examined corruption at Santa Ana City Hall in the mid-1990s and ultimately indicted a city councilman, Ted Moreno. He ultimately was convicted in 2000 on taking cash bribes from an undercover FBI informant in exchange for an alcohol license at a gas station, and then using the money to try to elect several of his allies to the council.
Due to secrecy rules around federal grand jury proceedings, it’s unclear what the full scope is of the investigation that issued the subpoenas mentioning Serrano, or where that probe now stands.
In recent years, the police union has grown into the largest campaign spender in the city, after other major groups like the firefighters’ union and chamber of commerce significantly pulled back their spending.
The police officers’ association is now widely considered the most influential group in Santa Ana’s elections. It took on a more assertive role in city politics after Serrano was elected as president in spring 2016, amid frustration rank-and-file officers had with then-Chief Carlos Rojas.
Serrano himself had been disciplined by Rojas after Westminster police found Serrano had driven under the influence of alcohol when he crashed into another car in 2011 and fled the scene. Officers arrested Serrano for DUI, and he later refused blood and breath tests before the department cited him for DUI and recommended two misdemeanor charges, according to the report.
The police reports said Serrano was slurring speech after the crash and told investigating officers they were “sick,” “pathetic,” and had “better not come to Santa Ana.” He also tried to “chest bump” an arresting officer after he arrived at the jail, according to the reports.
Serrano has declined to comment on the Westminster incident, except to say it was “a non-injury traffic accident, and it was determined I did not break the law…My record is clean.”
Then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office did not file charges against Serrano, citing the lack of a blood test, though DA records later showed the DA’s office routinely files such DUI refusal cases against other people, including eight during the month Serrano was arrested and more than 2,000 cases total since 2011.
Serrano later posed in his sergeant’s uniform alongside Rackauckas for campaign ads for the DA’s 2018 re-election.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who won against Rackauckas in that election, later said Serrano should have been charged in the DUI case.
After Serrano was elected president of the officers’ association, the union spent $400,000 in the 2016 to help elect a new City Council majority that quickly moved to oust the then city manager, who oversees the police chief, and Rojas began looking for other jobs and left to become a police chief in Northern California.
Rojas later sued the city, and received a $350,000 settlement, in a case that gathered testimony from city officials alleging under oath Serrano tried to bribe City Council candidates in 2016. Serrano allegedly told candidates they had to agree to fire Rojas in order to benefit from $400,000 in campaign spending, according to the testimony, which Serrano has broadly disputed.
Rojas testified he reported the alleged police union bribery to the FBI in 2016.
Earlier this year, Serrano and the union succeeded in recalling the City Council’s only Republican, after she voted against $25 million in raises for officers and publicly feuded with Serrano.
Separately from the federal subpoenas, the state’s pension system for cities, CalPERS, says it’s conducting an ongoing audit or review regarding Serrano, which it has not released details about.
Serrano, who is on full release from his city duties while serving as the union’s president, is the highest-compensated city employee in Santa Ana other than the police chief, out of over 1,700 employees, according to data published by Transparent California.
Serrano’s total compensation from the city has increased significantly during his four years so far as union president. His salary and benefits jumped from $346,000 two years ago to $505,000 last year, according to city payroll data published by Transparent California.
Serrano is in the midst of seeking his own re-election as president, with ballots due from the union’s members over the next couple of weeks. He’s being challenged by Adrian Silva, a sergeant.
Serrano is credited by officers with leading the successful effort to secure City Council votes last year for raises, as well as the ouster of former Police Chief Carlos Rojas and ensuring the City Council’s appointment of David Valentin as police chief.
Little is publicly known about Silva, who previously served on the union’s board and was the department’s Corporal of the Year several years ago. He and Serrano didn’t respond to interview requests through the union.
The police union this year is again the largest spender in Santa Ana elections, with over $200,000 spent so far on ads supporting candidates Jose Solorio, Mark McLoughlin, and Vic Mendez.
In recent weeks, the police union also reported contributing $2,500 to Santa Ana Unified School District candidate Cecilia Aguinaga and $2,100 to Anaheim City Council candidate Avelino Valencia. The union also contributed to two candidates for the Rancho Santiago Community College District board, Brett Franklin ($5,000) and Tina Miller ($2,100).
Local residents and activists are now keen on knowing which candidates the union supports and opposes. At nearly every City Council candidates’ forum that’s been broadcast online this election, one of the central questions was whether candidates would accept support from the union.
A previous version of this article noted the police union reported a $10,000 contribution in support of District Attorney Todd Spitzer in recent weeks. The union later filed an amended disclosure saying the funds were actually to Crime Survivors PAC, an independent group supporting Spitzer that in recent weeks has been spending on ads supporting Solorio for mayor. Spitzer is not up for re-election this year.
An earlier version of this story had the incorrect amount for a contribution from the police union to Valencia. The union reported the amount as $2,100, not $2,500.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have an opinion on this story? Join the conversation… In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join the open conversation on our Facebook page. Message us via our website form or staff page. Send us a secure news tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.