Friday, May 27 , 2016, 12:14 pm | Fair 66º

Former County Fire Employee Pleads Guilty to Embezzling Union Funds

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

A former Santa Barbara County Fire Department employee who was arrested last summer on charges of grand theft and filing false tax returns during his time as an insurance administrator for his union pleaded guilty on Thursday morning in court and will be sentenced to three years in prison.

Robert Perez
Robert Perez

Robert Perez was arrested Aug. 30, 2013, after a four-month investigation by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

Perez, who is retired from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, was charged with grand theft and filing false tax returns, and voluntarily turned himself into the Sheriff's Department. He was subsequently arrested and booked into the Santa Barbara County Jail.

The misappropriation of funds and tax evasion occurred during the time Perez held the position of insurance administrator with the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Local 2046, from which he stole an average of $20,000 a year, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota.

Cota confirmed Thursday that Perez pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft and six counts of felony tax evasion for crimes committed between 2007 and 2012.

Perez, who is 55, took an early retirement before the District Attorney's Office pressed charges against him.

Cota said Perez is receiving retirement monies currently, and that if Perez doesn't volunteer the monies, the firefighters union can take steps to recover the money.

Perez also admitted to a white-collar fraud enhancement, which means  two or more related felonies amounted to a loss of more than $100,000. Because the amount was more than $100,000 — Cota estimates Perez stole around $124,000 from the union — Perez is ineligible for local custody or probation.

A restitution hearing must be held to determine the amount to be paid back to the union, as well as state taxes that went unreported, Cota said.

Cota said he felt the three-year prison sentence was appropriate because Perez had been stealing from co-workers, people who he would conceivably work with during a life-threatening situation.

"There has to be a level of trust between those people," he said.

Perez was in court on Thursday morning, and is being represented by attorney Steve Balash.

"He's a decorated firefighter that screwed up," Balash said. "He always intended to pay the money back."

Balash said Perez ran into personal problems, including needing to help pay for medical issues of family members, including that of his wife, who has lupus.

"He found himself in a bind and the money was there and nobody missed it," Balash said.

Perez is scheduled to be sentenced June 16 in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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