Robert Perez, a retired insurance administrator for the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Union, was sentenced on Thursday to three years in state prison for stealing $113,000 from the union and not reporting that income to the IRS. Under a plea deal he made with the District Attorney’s Office in April, Perez pleaded no contest to the seven felony grand theft and felony tax evasion charges against him. Perez also faces a $100,000 fine and restitution payments to the union, which can be deducted from his pension if he doesn’t comply. The amount of restitution Perez will pay will be ironed out later this month, as both sides disagree on the amount.
In 2001, Perez — a 20-year veteran of the County Fire Department — was elected to manage the $1 million-per-year insurance account for Local 2046, a position that required him to monitor and pay the monthly premiums for 250 active and retired firefighters. In addition to his regular salary, Perez received $400 a month to handle the account and pay for some business-related expenses.
But between 2006 and 2013, Perez siphoned more than $400 a month from the account, buying jewelry for his wife, paying her cell phone bill, purchasing a new laptop, treating insurance adjustors to a $600 dinner, trading in his old house in Arroyo Grande for a more expensive one, and acquiring a $165,000 mobile home. The union discovered the theft while conducting an audit in March 2013, shortly after Perez retired. He turned himself in last August after the Sheriff’s Office conducted a four-month investigation.
Perez’s attorney, Steve Balash, said that Perez “found himself in a bind” after recently adopting his wife’s special-needs grandchildren (for which he receives support from the state) and that the financial situation got out of control. Balash cited Perez’s years of service, rescue work, and multiple awards as testaments to his character. “It is what it is. He made a mistake,” Balash said. “Sometimes good people do bad things.”
Before it was decided that the restitution hearing would be postponed, Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota engaged in a back-and-forth with Perez over the rules related to handling the account. Cota maintained that there were set guidelines for the job, but Perez said he never received a list of rules, that he never asked what the rules were, and that there were no rules. Cota then pointed to an incident in 2006, where Perez bought a desktop computer and asked the union to reimburse him for it; he didn’t follow that protocol in 2008 when buying a laptop, instead deducting the expenses straight from the account. Balash argued that Perez should only be on the hook for $71,000 of the $113,000 stolen, as the rest was used to benefit the union in some way. Cota disagreed, and the two lawyers will come back later this month.
Cota said Perez’s three-year term was warranted. “It’s a violation of trust of his fellow coworkers and union members,” he said. “Firefighting involves life-threatening situations in which you have to trust the person standing next to you. You’re putting your life in their hands. In this case, he proved to be someone who was not worthy of that trust.”
Ed Rodriguez, the former vice president of the union and one of about 10 retired firefigthers who attending the sentencing, said that he was satisfied with the outcome. “As a firefighter, we all take an oath to uphold the public trust. That’s part of our job,” he said. “He didn’t uphold the public trust. He betrayed us.”