California State Treasurer Fiona Ma backed state legislation aimed at helping Santa Ana police union president Gerry Serrano count his union salary toward his pension and boost his retirement benefits at City Hall, after Serrano asked for her assistance.
Ma’s actions, first revealed by Anaheim watchdog Duane Roberts, have raised questions about why the state’s treasurer would seek modifications of statewide policies to advance the goal of a union leader who’s been criticized by Santa Ana officials for seeking improper use of public money.
“We understand that Mr. Serrano has expectations for an increase in his pension by up to $60,000 per year,” wrote the city’s top attorney, Sonia Carvalho, in a 2021 letter obtained by Voice of OC last year through a public records request. “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.”
In a Wednesday statement to Voice of OC, Ma said she helped Serrano in order to tackle what she considers a larger statewide problem: “Inconsistent” applications of the state’s public employee retirement system, CalPERS.
For this reason, she said she supported Senate Bill 278, a bill that amends existing state policy and sets new procedures for determining benefits of a public employee who gets special pay and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September.
Roberts’ website, the Anaheim Investigator, revealed this month that Ma was included in state-level efforts to help Serrano, which involved draft language for that same senate bill while it was going through the legislature.
The draft language was circulated in emails between Serrano, Ma, CalPERS officials, and various California police association lobbyists, according to the Anaheim Investigator.
Roberts’ article also detailed how, over the course of these efforts, Serrano’s police union in Santa Ana became a heavy contributor to Ma’s reelection campaign.
The OC Register’s editorial board heavily criticized the situation surrounding Ma and Serrano.
“These revelations are the latest chapter in a complex and revealing local story — one that highlights how police unions across California misuse tax dollars at the expense of the public and use campaign contributions to advance personal agendas rather than genuine law-enforcement priorities,” the editorial board wrote Feb. 16.
Ma said the bill amendment will save taxpayers money.
“The amendment we supported allows CalPERS to review local [labor contracts] before they are signed to prevent costly appeals processes later when a person retires. We believe this legislation strengthens policies and will prevent issues from arising in the future,” Ma said in an emailed statement.
She added that people who “step up to represent their union members should not be penalized for taking on a leadership role that seeks to protect the rights of workers.”
Serrano did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
He’s one of Santa Ana’s highest-compensated employees with total pay and benefits hitting roughly $500,000 as of 2020, according to Transparent California – all while doing no work for the city as part of his full-time release provision under the police union’s labor contract.
“This law does not apply to just one person. It also applies to teachers, firefighters, nurses, hotel workers, in-home support caregivers, and other public service workers,” Ma wrote.
The revelation by Roberts’ blog came just before an administrative law judge determined Serrano should not get what he’s been asking for, for years – to receive state pension credit for his salary as president of the Santa Ana Police Officer’s Association.
Judge Adam L. Berg ruled Feb. 15 that the special compensation Serrano earns as union president can’t be considered as pensionable in regards to his retirement benefits.
“Because only special compensation performed as part of the member’s ‘normally required duties’ is reportable … and the SAPOA president has no normally required duties while on leave from the City, work performed on behalf of the union cannot qualify as special compensation, regardless of the nature of the work or its ultimate benefit to the City,” Berg wrote in the ruling.
On top of that, Berg determined that the special pay Serrano earns in other categories – detective premium, bilingual premium, holiday pay and uniform allowance – also don’t count.
The ruling earlier this month comes after CalPERS made roughly the same determination in 2020. Serrano appealed that ruling.
Though Berg did rule this month that Serrano can get a pension bump through a category of pay known as an “Educational Incentive,” apparently because he received a Bachelor’s Degree from Cal State Long Beach. This reverses CalPERS’ 2020 decision.
Berg’s ruling will go before the CalPERS Board on April 19.
The board can either adopt the Judge’s decision, remand it, or issue a decision of its own, according to a news release by a City of Santa Ana-hired lawyer, Jeff Ranen of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP.
Serrano has advanced his efforts over the past few years with a pressure campaign on City Hall, according to city staff executives in internal memos made public last year and first reported on by Voice of OC.
In those memos, the city’s top executive and legal counsel both voiced concern that Serrano would “burn the city to the ground” unless he gets what he wants, as they insisted Serrano’s ask was “unreasonable.”
But Serrano sought other avenues.
On Feb. 3, the Anaheim Investigator first revealed emails between Serrano and Ma showing the Santa Ana police union president first contacted the state treasurer in September 2020.
In response, Ma asked her executive staff to look into Serrano’s pension issue, according to the Anaheim Investigator article, which states that Serrano, Ma, her executive staff, and CalPERS employees all exchanged text messages over the following weeks focused on resolving it.
The communications then ceased until March of last year, when Serrano met with Ma and a senior adviser at a hotel conference room for 30 minutes in Sacramento, according to the records the Anaheim Investigator obtained.
Several days later, drafts for two new bills — which would exempt Serrano from the CalPERS rules, which prompted his pension request to begin with — made the rounds in email correspondence between CalPERS staff, Ma, her executive staff, as well as various law enforcement association lobbyists in California.
Ma in her Wednesday statement said she supported Senate Bill 278, saying it “passed with bipartisan support” and “should alleviate similar inconsistencies in the future.”
It applies retroactively to state pension decisions made after Jan. 1, 2017. The CalPERS decision which Serrano appealed was made in 2020.
A spokesperson for Ma’s office did not respond to follow-up questions asking whether this means Serrano’s special pay can now bump his pension.
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