Retired firefighter Robert Perez will repay the Santa Barbara County firefighters union the approximately $112,000 he siphoned from the insurance account during his tenure as that account’s manager, ruled Judge Jean Dandona on Thursday. Perez had been sentenced in July to three years in state prison for the seven felony grand theft and tax evasion charges against him, and his lawyer argued unsuccessfully that some of that money benefitted the union and that the union was partially responsible for not watching him closer.
Following his sentencing in July, Perez was taken into custody at County Jail, and he appeared in court Thursday in a blue jail jumpsuit. Several current and former firefighters, including Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett, showed up for the two-hour restitution hearing. With the restitution matter settled, Perez will soon begin his prison term.
Perez had been with the County Fire Department for 20 years, and in 2001, he was chosen to run the $1-million-per-year insurance account, monitoring and paying the premiums for 250 active and retired firefighters. In addition to his regular salary, the position earned him $400 monthly. But between 2006 and 2013, he deducted more than that from the account rather than going through the reimbursement process as he had before. With the money, he treated his wife to jewelry and an iPad cover, paid her cell-phone bill and Costco membership, and covered the costs for her to attend a work-related meeting. Perez also used the account to make charitable donations — which union leadership said is done through a separate pot of money — and to buy a new laptop, a new house, and a mobile home.
Union president Adam Estabrook testified Thursday to the rules regarding reimbursement — submit receipts along with certain paperwork — and said union leadership would “never” authorize money, as Perez did for himself, for spouses’ cell phone bills or home Internet service. Neither would they have approved a $600 dinner to wine and dine insurance brokers, as Perez did. “We’re not looking for their business; they’re looking for ours. We would never have approved $600 for dinner,” Estabrook said. And Perez’s deductions for office supplies were likewise unwarranted, Estabrook said, referring to withdrawals for ink cartridges and a desk. Perez’s replacement, Estabrook said, hasn’t spent “a penny” on such materials.
In trying to make his case that many of the purchases were for the good of the union, attorney Roy Millender likened Perez’s actions to a dehydrated bank teller who takes $2 out of the till to buy a $1 soda. But Dandona didn’t buy it. “The bank gets to decide whether it wants the soda or whether it wants the cash,” she said. Further, Millender argued, the union bore “comparative negligence” for not checking on Perez.
Prosecutor Brian Cota called it “inappropriate” for Perez’s lawyers to attempt to pin the blame on the union. “In every case of embezzlement, ultimately the person’s able to steal from the entity or person because they trust them. That’s what embezzlement is,” he said. “If you didn’t trust somebody, they wouldn’t be able to steal from you. I don’t think that the union should be faulted for trusting one of its own with the money.”
Perez’s other attorney, Steve Balash, has previously said his client “found himself in a [financial] bind” after adopting his wife’s special-needs grandchildren, whose childcare costs he also paid for out of the account. His crimes were discovered in March 2013 shortly after he retired, and Perez turned himself in some months later. On top of his restitution payments — which will be subtracted from his pension if he doesn’t comply — Perez faces a $100,000 fine related to his sentence and owes back taxes for not reporting his stolen income to the IRS.
After the hearing, Estabrook said he and the rest of his colleagues felt that “justice has been done.” He continued, “As firefighters, we hold ourselves to a higher moral and ethical standard. That we’re here in the first place is sad.”