Retired Santa Barbara County Fire Department employee Robert Joseph Perez was released on his own recognizance Tuesday after his disqualification for a public defender pushed his arraignment date back. Perez faces seven felony charges, one of which is for grand theft of approximately $114,000 and others for six counts of tax evasion for not reporting the allegedly stolen income.
Before retiring this past spring, Perez served as the insurance administrator of Santa Barbara County Firefighters Local 2046, said Adam Estabrook, the union’s president. The union discovered the alleged criminal activity while conducting an audit this March, Estabrook said, and then reported the issue to the Sheriff’s Office, which launched a four-month-long investigation.
Detectives declined to comment on how Perez spent the alleged stolen money. Estabrook emphasized that the money was not associated with taxpayers or the county but was entirely from the union.
After turning himself in on Friday, Perez was arrested and booked into the Santa Barbara County Jail on $110,000 bail. At his arraignment on Tuesday, Perez argued that he be released on his own recognizance, saying, “other bills won’t be paid” if he had to post his own bail and that he didn’t want to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” In his teary plea, Perez argued against the District Attorney’s Office’s reasons for not releasing him without bail. “Had I felt like fleeing, I would have fled prior to standing here,” Perez said.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, the alleged grand theft occurred between March 2006 and February 2012, with the reported false tax returns occurring in tax years 2007 through 2012. Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota, who will be handling the case, said that Perez could face a total of eight years in prison if convicted.
Perez’s plea was accompanied by three letters of support, including one from a pastor in San Luis Obispo and one from Ira and Linda Distenfield, who partnered with the Santa Barbara Police Department for the local television program On Patrol.
The District Attorney’s Office argued against Perez being released on his own recognizance, citing Perez’s ownership of a motor home, his Arroyo Grande residence, and the possibility of prison time if found guilty. After listening to Perez’s plea and taking into account the letters of support and recommendation by the court’s Bail/Own Recognizance Unit, Judge Thomas Adams granted Perez’s request to be released, rescheduling his arraignment for September 17.
Michael Dyer, the fire chief of Santa Barbara County Fire, distanced the department from Perez, saying, “He’s a former employee now, and I think we need to let the judicial process take its course.”