Santa Ana’s powerful police union president Gerry Serrano has city officials scrambling to defend themselves against what they term as an effort to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”
Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge, in one July 19 letter obtained by Voice of OC, put City Council members on notice that the police union president has mounted a questionable political pressure campaign to improperly boost his pension.
The city’s recently-hired Human Resources Director “has dedicated significant hours, to not only overseeing the allegations, but also to attempt to engage in a professional working relationship with the POA President,” Ridge wrote to council members.
“In those conversations and based upon other statements made by Mr. Serrano, it is clear he intends to ‘burn the City to the ground unless he gets what he wants,’” Ridge warned.
Serrano has filed a barrage of disputed legal claims accusing city leaders of wrongdoing, threatened to “make disclosures that will hurt people,” and also asked elected officials to pressure the city manager, wrote city executives in documents and memos obtained by Voice of OC through a Public Records Act request.
Serrano, who is also a sergeant at the police department, responded to requests for comment with the following written statement from his attorney, Corey Glave:
“We would assert the vapid claims and/or allegations against Mr. Serrano lack merit and were created in further retaliation against Mr. Serrano and the Santa Ana Police Officers Association for their reporting of unlawful and/or criminal conduct by high ranking members of the City’s and Police Department’s leadership.”
The statement adds:
“The fact that the City Manager and City Attorney are trying to create defense documents and providing them to the media evidences clear signs of desperation. The Santa Ana Police Officers Association and Mr. Serrano see no need to litigate these issues in the court of public opinion, therefore, they will not being providing any further comment at this time.”
The city provided its documents to Voice of OC in response to a public records request.
Serrano is one of the city’s highest-compensated employees with total pay and benefits exceeding $500,000 as of 2019, all while doing no work for the city as part of his full-time release provision under the police union’s labor contract.
But Serrano wants more.
Part of the compensation Serrano makes is bonus pay that doesn’t legally count toward his eventual pension payout, the state pension agency CalPERS found last year.
Now Serrano “wants the city to make him whole,” City Attorney Sonia Carvalho wrote in a July 20 letter. “However, the City cannot do so based on the express language set forth in the (union’s contract) and the facts presented.”
“It is simply against public policy for an individual to receive a taxpayer-funded, public pension for work that was not performed for a public agency,” Carvalho wrote in her letter, which was addressed to an attorney representing Serrano in his efforts, Charles Goldwasser.
Serrano has tried several avenues to up his pension, Carvalho wrote, by asking City Manager Kristine Ridge to appoint him as the Deputy City Manager or Human Resources Director “so he could increase his pay to an amount that would exceed his current pay as a safety employee …”
When Ridge refused, Carvalho said Serrano “contacted current elected officials and former officials with the goal of placing pressure on the City Manager to go back and review where there was a position at the City that would satisfy his demands.”
In one July 15 email obtained by Voice of OC, Goldwasser asked city staff to put the idea of creating a city job position for Serrano before council members at their next meeting.
“The City has done all it can to accommodate Mr. Serrano, yet Mr. Serrano refuses to budge on his demands and expectations. To put it simply, we believe he is being unreasonable and as a result, is causing great harm to the City and its residents,” Carvalho wrote in her response.
City officials, in the obtained documents and correspondence, say they’ve burned through much staff time and city resources investigating each of Serrano’s ensuing legal claims — which they say are unsubstantiated — against the city.
“The tactics are escalating at a swift pace and there is a high probability that the results of his actions will result in litigation and liability exposure for our City,” City Manager Kristine Ridge wrote in a July 19 letter to her elected bosses on the City Council.
She adds: “The heavy lifting devoted to this one employee is proportionately unfair to council priorities, taxpayers, and other employees.”
Ridge said it’s her belief that Serrano’s pension efforts are “the driving influence behind the barrage of allegations and tort claims from Mr. Serrano personally, through the (police union) Board and through legal counsel hired by the (union).”
It comes after Ridge wrote a warning letter to Serrano over his conduct in May.
“As a result, less than 24 hours later, I received a call from a close associate of Mr. Serrano, letting me know Mr. Serrano is claiming that I sexually harassed him,” Ridge wrote in her letter to council members.
That “associate” is identified in Carvalho’s letter as Ryan Ogulnick, a well-known developer in Santa Ana behind the killed, but highly controversial, 2525 N Main Street project.
Ridge in her letter said Ogulnick encouraged her to “just help Gerry with his ‘pension issue.’”
Ogulnick disputed that account in an interview with Voice of OC. He said he did mention to Ridge that Serrano was making allegations against the city about harassment of female police officers, but nothing about allegations that Ridge had harassed Serrano.
“I had said simply that Gerry is making some allegations about the city, including some sexual, I guess, harassment. But I didn’t ever hear that was about Kristine,” he added. “Maybe it was just a misunderstanding.”
“I said that Gerry was spouting out a lot of different things, but I never said that Kristine was harassing Gerry. No,” he added. “The only thing I heard was something to do with female officers.”
Ridge, however, stood by her accounts in an Aug. 3 phone interview, saying Ogulnick called her on May 19 at 11:50 a.m. within 24 hours after Ridge sent her letter to Serrano.
“He (Ogulnick) clearly said Gerry was claiming I sexually harassed him and that he (Gerry) was ‘not feeling the love’ and that I should ‘have coffee with him,’” Ridge said. “I was flabbergasted.”
Ridge said Ogulnick later texted her on May 21 asking “When can you talk? Some explanation in order.”
Ridge on Tuesday provided a screenshot of the text, which Voice of OC reviewed.
When Ridge called Ogulnick back, “he (Ogulnick) told me Gerry was mad at him for saying that; he (Gerry) may have been drinking; he didn’t mean it; and I told him ‘It’s too late’ and that I filed a report,” she said.
Carvalho said Serrano has not cooperated with the city’s investigation into his own claim:
“The sexual harassment claim […] is currently being investigated, but to date, Mr. Serrano has not yet scheduled an interview with the investigator assigned to the matter.”
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, in a Tuesday written statement to Voice of OC, said “City Manager Kristine Ridge is a consummate professional and a dedicated public servant who has ably led Santa Ana through one of the most difficult years in our City’s history.”
The union, under Serrano, has also taken issue with Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin, his department and other city officials over a number of issues, laid out in a series of legal claims which the union has filed with the city.
In the claims, the union lambasts the department for its response to public records requests by Voice of OC; alleges a pattern of misogyny and discrimination inside the department toward unnamed female employees; and alleges Valentin and his administration were untruthful in recent lawsuit depositions around the investigation and employment case of an officer.
The most recent claim Serrano has filed against the city alleges that both Ridge and Valentin have refused to investigate the allegations of misconduct made by Serrano in his previous claims:
“The City, City Manager Ridge, the City Attorney’s office and other city management, for the most part, have refused to conduct investigations into the complaints and appear to act with a desire to protect Ridge and Valentin and/or cover-up his/their illegal activities.”
Sarmiento, in a written statement Tuesday, said the claim comes “without offering any facts.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have witnessed the Police Association engaging in these tactics. The City Manager and the Police Chief have my full support and I have complete faith in their leadership,” he said.
Sarmiento added: “Police Chief David Valentin is a person of high ethical standards and sound judgment.”
The apparent dispute between Serrano and the chief has most recently led to an upcoming union no-confidence vote in Valentin, initiated by the union’s board, under Serrano.
The city has spent “tens of thousands of dollars researching the law, reviewing options and negotiating” with Serrano and his attorney, Carvalho wrote.
Ridge, in her letter, also said the city’s recently-hired Human Resources Director “has dedicated significant hours, to not only overseeing the allegations, but also to attempt to engage in a professional working relationship with the POA President.”
“In those conversations and based upon other statements made by Mr. Serrano, it is clear he intends to ‘burn the City to the ground unless he gets what he wants,’” Ridge wrote.
Serrano also attempts near-daily contact with city officials by texts and phone calls — so much so, Carvalho wrote, “I encouraged an elected official to meet with Mr. Serrano after the official told me Mr. Serrano had been calling him from different phone numbers.”
Serrano’s behavior crossed the line, Ridge wrote in her letter to council members:
“His recent behavior has violated basic code of conduct, including untruthfulness, creating a harassing environment and even interfering with investigations by not cooperating and openly discussing allegations. He has not only interfered administratively but also politically.”
“It is professionally disappointing that I feel compelled to inform you of the current situation,” she said.
Earlier this year, Voice of OC reported that a union vice president under Serrano, Jim Armstrong, resigned from his post — but not without this to say to Serrano in his resignation letter:
“You have turned our union into a subtle dictatorship,” wrote Armstrong, a property crimes detective at the police department. He then forwarded his resignation message to top police officials. Serrano, at the time, declined to comment on the letter.
The union has for the past several years been viewed as one of the most powerful political forces in Santa Ana, with their campaign support considered in some cases to be a big factor of a candidate’s success.
One example came last year, when the union funded a successful recall of their most vocal City Council critic, Republican Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, who had voted against a $25 million police officers raise the Council approved without funding.
Federal authorities have also been looking into the police union, issuing subpoenas related to Serrano.
The nature of the investigation and the subpoenas’ roles in them have not been disclosed, though Serrano has dismissed them as baseless probes brought on by his enemies.
Earlier this year, Voice of OC reported that Chief Valentin had raised questions about whether Serrano took excessive cash-outs for unused time off from City Hall.
Serrano became the union’s president in 2016.
Since then, the interest group has emerged as a powerful and aggressive player in citywide elections — spending heavily on the 2018 citywide elections on select council candidates who supported police salary raises and, in 2019, the recall of Iglesias who opposed them.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.