Firefighters Union Chief Under Fire

— District attorney Bonnie Dumanis has charged him with a felony, but members of the San Diego City Fire Fighters Local 145 apparently think Ron Saathoff is doing just fine. This past summer they reelected him president.

"Ron may be an SOB," said one veteran firefighter, "but he's our SOB." The firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that Saathoff has been a strong advocate for the union rank and file.

A former board member of the San Diego City Employees Retirement System, Saathoff was charged on May 17, along with five other board members, with voting to approve a deal that continued underfunding of the pension system and increased benefits. Specifically, they were charged under Government Code Section 1090, which, according to a May 17 press release issued by Dumanis, states that "City officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity or by any body or board of which they are members." Among the benefit increases the board approved was one that boosted Saathoff's pension by $2530.23 a month to $9703.66. If convicted, Saathoff could spend three years in state prison.

Following Saathoff's indictment, the firefighters union made extraordinary salary concessions to the City of San Diego. According to Johnnie Perkins, the union's director of governmental affairs, the concessions that San Diego's public employees unions agreed to will save the city $17 million this year.

The election for president of San Diego City Firefighters was held in July. Saathoff's legal problems combined with the salary concessions granted under his leadership made for a tempestuous campaign. "In the 20 years I have been on the department I can't recall a more contentious election process, and I hope I don't see another before I retire," firefighter Dan Saner, a member of the union's board of directors, wrote on the union's website, SDFire.org.

One of the candidates, Paul Vandeveld, railed on his website, SDFDmembers.com: "The reason we are being asked to take a 2 year pay freeze and make a 3.2% contribution towards retirement is because in April of 2002, Ron Saathoff got an extra benefit towards retirement. In November 2002, Ron Saathoff voted and got the rest of the Retirement Board to vote to allow the city to not have to make a $600 Million contribution into the pension fund. In fact he had been allowing the city to skip out on contributions into the pension fund for as far back as 1996."

Vandeveld continued, "That is why the FBI is investigating Ron Saathoff. He was OUR elected Representative to the Retirement Board. He had a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the city contributed and that the fund was run ethically and according to the rules. HE FAILED TO DO THAT!!!! We contributed our share and he let the city skip out on theirs."

A guest posting by "Angryman" on Vandeveld's website bulletin board picked up on the anti-Saathoff drumbeat. "Ron Saathoff screwed us. He didn't do his job in the first place, and then by his incredible greed, he ruined our public image."

Another wrote sarcastically, "I like giving $125 more a paycheck plus $55 more also for the exact same benefits I had last year. Nothing like a $350 per month pay cut."

(Saathoff declined requests for comment, and Perkins declined to respond to allegations against Saathoff.)

Despite the invective, Saathoff, who has been the union's president since 1981, received 66 percent of the votes in July, 491 out of the 746 cast.

Adding fuel to the fire of discontent at the union was the fact that the election, which was conducted by mail, had to be held twice.

"One of our members told us his ballot was returned," said Perkins. According to Perkins, the union's secretary/treasurer, Chet Bertell, called the post office. Bertell told Perkins that "they said that since the bill was not paid, they closed the P.O. box and sent letters without return addresses to the dead-letter office." Perkins said Bertell asked the post office if he could pick up the ballots. "They said, 'Sure, they are in Minneapolis.' "

Why wasn't the P.O. box bill paid? "I don't know," said Perkins. "P.O. boxes are not in my job description."

Fumed Vandeveld, "The whole snafu on the PO box is either corruption or complete incompetence, and that fact cannot be hidden."

Union board member Saner referred to the voting debacle in his SDFire.org website message. "I want to thank [candidates] Paul Vandeveld and Mike Finnerty for pointing out the shortcomings of our election process and making it painfully obvious that we cannot continue with the process of voting with mail-in ballots. I will make it my personal goal to work with the board and bring our membership a voting process that values every vote."

Secretary/treasurer Bertell also acknowledged the mail-vote problems in a message on the union's website dated July 2005. "I want to personally apologize to all the candidates who were inconvenienced by the election snafu. Hopefully within the next few days, we will have the election wrapped up and office holders assuming their duties. Good luck to all."

Another message posted on Vandeveld's website was unforgiving. "Someone forgot to pay the P.O. box???? Are you kidding me??? If anything, it goes to show that the curent leadership is inept or otherwise occupied at best, and if it was intentional, corrupt. Maybe we can hire officials from Mexico or Iraq to insure a more honest election process."

Notwithstanding Saathoff's strong reelection, the union -- while putting on a brave business-as-usual front -- is facing unprecedented turmoil. The federal corruption conviction this past summer of Councilman Michael Zucchet was a blow. Before he was elected to the San Diego City Council in November 2002, Zucchet served as the union's governmental affairs representative. Saathoff had put the union's prestige and a significant amount of its treasury behind Zucchet's candidacy. According to records at city hall, the San Diego firefighters spent $106,784.93 to elect Zucchet. In contrast, during the same election cycle, the union gave a total of $5536 to Donna Frye's and Ralph Inzunza's city council campaigns.

Saathoff flexed his political muscle again in 2004, when the union supported Dick Murphy for mayor. Not leaving well enough alone, Murphy's opponent Ron Roberts publicly attacked Saathoff, saying that he had cut a private deal with Murphy to not alter the pension board in exchange for the endorsement.

Murphy and Saathoff denied the allegations, and Saathoff got the last word when he directed his union to spend $111,766.40 on television ads attacking Roberts in the final ten days of the campaign. Roberts came in third place, behind Murphy and write-in candidate Donna Frye. These expenditures were the deathblow to Roberts's mayoral dreams.

In next Tuesday's special primary election, the union has endorsed Kevin Faulconer -- Zucchet's 2002 opponent -- for the District 2 vacancy and Benjamin Hueso for the District 8 vacancy. But the union decided to sit out the mayoral face-off between Jerry Sanders and Donna Frye.

Other complaints against Saathoff and the union focus on a lack of openness. Saathoff, who's acknowledged as extremely bright yet verbose, has been circumspect since his indictment. Even the "Message from the President" on the union's website focuses solely on the mundane issue of the website's creation.

"Welcome to our new website!! We couldn't be more excited to announce the launch of the San Diego City Fire Fighters, Local 145 website. This is a dynamic site that took many hours of hard work and dedication to develop."

The undated message goes on to address member communication.

"Our primary goal, when we set out to develop this website was to increase the level of communication we have with our members. We constantly strive to get you the most updated information in a timely manner. This tool will help us do that."

But Vandeveld takes exception to claims that the website offers effective communication, indicating that the only way to know what's going on is to show up at union meetings. "It is your right to show up at Union meetings, not your obligation," Vandeveld writes on his website. "If you are out of town, can't get child care, or just don't see any need to debate the issue, you can still vote on the matter without attending the meeting. Let's move into the modern world of maximum participation where every voice matters."

Vandeveld goes on. "We're tired of the blanket of deception, the half truths and the all out blatant lies? When was the last time that you were given any handouts at a Union meeting? You don't get handouts. The current leadership doesn't want anything in writing that will be contrary to whatever he has to say to manipulate the vote, he doesn't want to be held accountable, and doesn't want something that can be used against him later. From now on, it will be published."

Another firefighter, who did not want to comment on the record, said he was unable to find copies of meeting minutes purported to be available to members on the website.

When Perkins was asked for background information on the union, ballot statements, and ballots, they were not forthcoming. "I sent your request to Ron Saathoff and Chet Bertell," said Perkins.

In the past month, since documents the pension board recently released became public, the heat has been turned up on Saathoff. One e-mail, dated March 24, 2003, was sent by Sheila Leone [now Sheila Jacobs], the pension system's legal counsel, to the pension system's general counsel, Loraine Chapin. It recounts the reaction of Robert Blum, the system's fiduciary counsel, to Saathoff's $2530.23-per-month pension increase:

"Bob was shown Ron's 'presidential leave' benefit. He called it 'absolutely breathtaking.' "

The "presidential leave" benefit refers to the practice of including the union salary with the city salary when determining the amount of the pension.

A May 13, 2004, legal memorandum from law firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek attorney Michael Leone (Sheila Leone's ex-husband) to Lawrence Grissom, the retirement system's administrator, also addresses the presidential leave issue, raising legal concerns that could bolster Dumanis's conflict-of-interest action against Saathoff:

"[T]he adoption of the 'presidential leave' ordinance affecting Board member Saathoff presents a significantly more probable basis for invalidation of the [pension] agreement.... [I]t appears that adoption of this ordinance implicated only Board member Saathoff's interests..."

But at least at the moment, these matters seem little more than bumps in the road for Saathoff, who by all accounts is still powerful, with no heir apparent. A conviction on conflict-of-interest charges may be the only way Saathoff will lose power.

A Vietnam veteran, Saathoff is a former Green Beret who received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. When asked early this summer how he felt about the legal and political battles he was facing, Saathoff referred to his war experience. "At least then I knew who was shooting at me."

Contact Scott Barnett at [email protected]

Read The City's Burning Down and We Won't Get Our Fire Trucks Until January -- an interview with Mike Aguirre by Scott Barnett and Matt Potter.

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