Former County Fire Department employee Robert Joseph Perez, (left) with attorney Steve Balash, pleads not guilty to embezzlement charges (Oct. 1, 2013)

Paul Wellman

Former County Fire Department employee Robert Joseph Perez, (left) with attorney Steve Balash, pleads not guilty to embezzlement charges (Oct. 1, 2013)

Fire Official Admits to Stealing Union Funds

Robert Perez Will Be Sentenced to Three Years in State Prison

A former insurance administrator for the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Union pleaded no contest Thursday to one charge of felony grand theft and six charges of felony tax evasion for stealing approximately $124,000 from the union over several years and not reporting that income to the IRS. He also admitted to enhancements that his theft exceeded $100,000.

Under a plea deal he struck with the District Attorney’s Office, Robert Perez — who initially pleaded not guilty last October — will be sentenced to three years in state prison in June; he will serve half of the sentence. How much restitution Perez will pay to the union (his attorney says $38,000, the District Attorney’s Office says $124,000) and to the state tax board will be determined at his sentencing in June.

According to Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota, Perez, 55, was in charge of a bank account that included union dues, a job for which he was paid $400 per month. But between 2006 and 2013, Perez withdrew more than $400 per month from that account. During tax years 2007-2012, Perez filed tax returns that didn’t state that income.

Perez, a 20-year veteran of the department, eight of which were spent as insurance administrator, retired in early 2013. The union discovered his theft while conducting an audit in March 2013. Perez turned himself in in August 2013 following a four-month investigation by the Sheriff’s Office; he was later released on his own recognizance.

Perez had argued that the money he removed was used for work expenses, such as phone bills. He had also recently adopted his wife’s grandchildren and “found himself in a jam financially,” said Steve Balash, Perez’s attorney. Balash added that Perez “always intended” to repay the money and that perhaps things would have turned out differently had Perez told his supervisor about his situation. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than request permission,” Balash said. “With embezzlement, it doesn’t work that way — it’s better to ask for permission.”

However, during the years of theft, Perez sold his house and purchased a more expensive home, as well as a $165,000 mobile home, Cota said, adding that Perez also made purchases at jewelry stores. “This is all the more egregious because of the job that he did and the trust that people have to have in him,” Cota said. “Firefighters work side-by-side in life-threatening situations. To be stealing from those people is all the more serious.” Cota said that if Perez doesn’t voluntarily participate in restitution payments, the amount could be deducted from his pension.

“It’s a really tough case,” Balash said, noting that Perez had letters of commendation behind him. “He made a bad choice.” Perez’s sentencing is delayed until June because he was a first responder to a crime scene in Santa Maria and is needed as a witness in that case.

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