For five years, John Franks led the Santa Ana Police Officers Association (POA) as President, a perch that saw him fight Chief Carlos Rojas after he fired cops involved in the infamous pot shop raid of 2015, as well as fight to preserve and expand Santa Ana’s immigrant detention contract with ICE.
He was no saint. But a lawsuit filed by John and Laura Franks, his wife and a longtime officer at the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD), against the City of Santa Ana on February 14 alleges that promising $400,000 from the union PAC’s coffers to city council candidates who pledged to vote for the firing of then-City Manager David Cavazos and Chief Rojas was a line he was not willing to cross.
That stand, the lawsuit maintains, cost John his position as POA President, and made him and Laura targets for retaliation by current Santa Ana police chief David Valentin and John’s POA prez successor, Gerry Serrano. Due to his refusal to participate in the “illegal scheme”, John alleges the City forced him to resign as union President so that Serrano could take control of the POA and the scheme could move forward.
Opposition to “Election Scheme”
Around late 2015, the lawsuit alleges John received a call from Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, and alleges that Pulido intimated that they had to remove Cavazos.
“John quickly cut Mayor Pulido off and terminated the telephone call as it was very clear to John that the phone call was about to go down an improper and unethical path,” the suit states.
Following the call, John is alleged to have reported their conversation to Chief Rojas, and then to Cavazos.
Franks’ alleged scenario came to pass. With Serrano as president, the POA spent over $400,000 to support the successful elections of Mayor Pulido, Jose Solorio, and Juan Villegas. Their votes proved crucial to oust Cavazos in January of 2017 (1), and Rojas left the department soon after (2).
John and Laura Franks’ lawsuit is the second legal filing against the city alleging an illegal “election scheme” that promised candidates hundreds of thousands in independent election expenditures in exchange for their votes to get rid of Cavazos and Rojas.
Rojas himself originally filed a suit against the city in July of 2017 for being forced to resign as Chief of Police as a result of “potential illegal activity and/or noncompliance” involving Serrano, Pulido, as well as Council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas (3). He settled and had the case dismissed in January of this year.
Retaliation and Departure from SAPD
After John resigned as POA President, he and Laura, allegedly faced retaliation from POA Serrano and Valentin.
Laura had been working as a Background Unit Supervisor for more than 11 years, becoming one of the highest producing Background investigators. Soon after John lost his position at the POA, Laura’s position as supervisor was reclassified, leading to her demotion and transfer to her old job at the city jail with a severe paycut.
The lawsuit states that Laura was repeatedly advised by others that this was taking place due to what was described as “Serrano having a target on Laura’s back due to Serrano’s disdain” for John and that Serrano was “out to get” John through Laura.
According to the lawsuit, Laura filed a lengthy Inappropriate Conduct Complaint Report with the City on May 21, 2018. Five months later, Laura received a follow-up letter, that found no facts and evidence of harassment, hostile work environment or retaliation that would constitute a violation of the law or City policy.
John retired from the SAPD on September of 2018, but the suit alleges that John continued to face retaliation following his departure from SAPD. The suit states that John applied to be a Deputy Sheriff Lateral with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) and met all the requirements, but needed to complete an Internal Affairs (IA) Investigation regarding an in-custody death. All that was needed was Chief Valentin to simply sign off on the IA report. The suit alleges that Chief Valentin never did, and that John was forced to withdraw from the OCSD hiring process as a result.
“I believe Chief Valentin is retaliating against me due to a lawsuit filed by my wife who currently works for Santa Ana Police Department […] Since then Chief Valentin and Gerry Serrano have created a hostile and retaliatory environment for me, my wife and several other SAPD employees,” John wrote in an email to an OCSD Investigator.
When discussing the events and circumstances with City Executive Director of Human Resources/Employee Relations Stephen Pham, Pham allegedly told John several times that he had a ‘good lawsuit’ and that never in Pham’s 30 years had he seen a POA President target members like Serrano was doing to both Laura and John.
“Mr Pham described that Serrano ‘needed to be sued’ as he was ‘drunk with power,’” the suit states.
John is represented by Lawrence J. Lennemann of the Law office of Lawrence J. Lennemann, and Laura is represented by John A. Girardi of Girardi | Keese, a law firm specializing in retaliation, wrongful termination, and civil rights in the workplace, among other areas. The suit was filed with the Superior Court of California, County of Orange.