Former Calif. fire union treasurer charged for embezzling $297K

Oscar Picazo resigned from both the union and his position at the fire department after an investigation was launched


By Danielle Vaughn
Lodi News-Sentinel

LODI, Calif. — A former Lodi firefighter is facing felony charges after allegedly embezzling $297,000 from the Lodi Professional Firefighters Union.

According to court records, Captain Oscar Picazo, who served as the union’s treasurer, has been charged with grand theft by embezzlement over $950, taking, damaging or destroying property over $200 and theft of more than $100,000.

Picazo will be arraigned next Thursday at 9:15 a.m. at the Lodi branch of the San Joaquin County Superior Court.

Picazo, who was nominated union treasurer in December of 2003, resigned from both the union and his position at the Lodi Fire Department in September of this year after the city launched an investigation into the matter.

The union released a statement that read: “While the media has only recently learned of the criminal charges brought against Mr. Picazo the Lodi Professional Firefighters has been coping with the damage inflicted by him for several months. The LPF was very disappointed to discover that Mr. Picazo violated the trust placed in him by the union. Although Mr. Picazo did not take any public funds, the fact that Mr. Picazo would defraud his friends and colleagues makes this situation all the more disheartening. The Lodi Professional Firefighters appreciates the thorough investigation of this matter by local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s efforts to protect the interests of the LPF and its members. Given that the LPF and its members are the victims in this matter we have no further comment until the conclusion of all legal proceedings.”

Lodi City Manager Steve Schwabauer confirmed that the city conducted an internal investigation after allegations surfaced that a large amount of money went missing from union accounts.

“There is an allegation that a city employee embezzled money from his union, and the city did begin an investigation because embezzlement by a person in a place of public trust is prohibited by our workplace rules,” he said. “Even though it was in his private time and private capacity it still would be prohibited by our workplace rules, so we began an investigation to determine whether or not it was founded.”

Schwabauer said that during the course of the investigation the employee resigned, without naming Picazo, and added that the investigation was halted. Schwabauer also noted that investigators determined that no public funds were taken.

“I am very disappointed about the allegation and the scenario obviously, but I’m glad to see the fire union working to resolve the issue,” Schwabauer said.

Lodi Fire Chief Larry Rooney weighed on the matter as well.

“Once the allegations were brought to my attention, the department took swift action by placing the employee on administrative leave and launched an investigation,” he said. “The employee then chose to resign his position with the fire department, ending his employment with the City of Lodi. The Lodi Fire Department is very troubled by these allegations against one of our former members because it does not truly reflect the character of our firefighters who are very caring and constantly hold themselves to a higher standard. They’ve worked very hard to earn the trust of this community and hold that respect dearly to provide a higher level of service to the community.”

When reached by phone on Friday, Picazo’s attorney, Albert Ellis of Hakeem Ellis and Marengo, said it was too early to discuss the case.

“My client hasn’t even been arraigned yet and I think it would be premature to discuss the case until we’ve received the complaint of the discovery in the case. So I would reserve any comment until I have an opportunity to review that information.”

According to Lodi Fire Captain Trevor Lambert, who also serves as the union secretary, Picazo was in charge of all of the union’s finances including the collection of dues, payments to other unions and all of the union’s bills.

Lambert said the department became concerned after learning that union bills weren’t being paid. After looking into the matter it was discovered that money was missing.

A forensic auditor was hired to look into the books and discovered that there were $297,000 worth of unauthorized transactions and withdrawals from the union’s accounts. The union was able to obtain seven years of bank statements for all of its accounts, and the forensic auditor said that records revealed that the alleged misconduct likely dated back seven years, if not longer.

Lambert said the situation has jeopardized the union’s membership with the state and international fire unions due to unpaid dues. He said that when the union was notified that it was delinquent on its dues, it was just four days away from being kicked out of the two unions indefinitely. Between the state and international union the local union owed more than $9,000 in unpaid bills.

Lambert said the local union has had to work to rebuild its damaged reputation with the two unions, adding that it has also struggled to pay its monthly bills.

Lodi Fire Engineer Roger Varwig said the union was so short on funds that union employees had no money to seek legal council if legal representation was needed.

According to Lambert, Picazo contacted the union president and paid back at least $73,000 of the missing funds in two separate payments. At that point, Lambert said the union was in the red with only $388 in its accounts.

Lodi Fire Captain Shane Langone is now the union treasurer and said he’s working to build trust with his fellow union members.

Langone said he brings the financial books and statements to board meetings and reads the expenditures, deposits and beginning and ending balances to the rest of the board and has three of the board members sign off on it.

“Everything is totally transparent and the books are available for anyone to take a look at,” Langone said.

Copyright 2016 the Lodi News-Sentinel

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