A growing number of officers plan to withdraw from the Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association unless the head of the union resigns due to his involvement in an obscene texting scandal.
About 20 members demanded as much last week after San Jose Inside reported on the extent of DSA President Don Morrissey’s participation in a slew of hateful texts that cost him his sergeant stripes. But Morrissey has yet to make any public indication that he or Vice President Roger Winslow will step down or even reconsider the union’s endorsement of retired Undersheriff John Hirokawa’s bid to unseat Sheriff Laurie Smith, as requested by the dissident members.
“To know that I continue to pay money into my union for protection and these are the guys in charge is unacceptable,” said Sgt. LaMond Davis, an African American officer with a two-decade tenure at the Sheriff’s Office and one of the 5 percent of DSA members planning to leave. “I mean, protected from what? How are they going to protect me?”
The DSA’s problems appear to extend beyond Morrissey’s ties to the high-profile texting scandal. Under his leadership, the 48-year-old union has evidently struggled to meet its financial obligations, burned through its legal defense fund at an unprecedented pace and even lost its tax-exempt status.
Records show that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service revoked the DSA’s tax exemption in the middle of 2017 for failing to submit its required paperwork for three straight years. That means members could no longer deduct their union dues, which the DSA board dubiously blamed on a change in federal tax law and mentioned only in passing several months after the fact.
“As a note, this will be the last year you may deduct ‘unreimbursed business expenses,’ which is what association dues fall under, on your federal taxes due to the recent tax reforms,” the union told members in a Feb. 5 email barely more than two months before the April 15 deadline and days after some had already filed their returns.
The DSA’s most recent publicly available tax form is from 2013, when Dennis Moser was president and the union reported more than $340,000 in membership contributions and $283,000 in expenses. Morrissey took over the following year and the union stopped filing its mandatory Form 990s, which makes it tough to assay his financial stewardship.
“While this organization may still appear [in the IRS database], further investigation and due diligence is warranted,” the federal agency cautions in a public notice of revocation.
A dozen members who spoke to San Jose Inside this past week contend that Morrissey has hijacked the union’s resources for personal purposes.
DSA bylaws state that expenditures over $5,000 “shall be made if not budgeted for or agreed upon by a majority vote of the membership responding by a ballot containing just the verbatim language of the motion and a yes or no to vote on the motion.”
Members interviewed by San Jose Inside in recent days say they believe Morrissey has made his exorbitant legal fees the exception to that rule, among others.
Indeed, according to court transcripts, internal records and sources familiar with the situation, the DSA’s entire $200,000-a-year budget to defend members in court has been used to finance Morrissey’s legal battle with Sheriff Smith, arbitration over his 2016 demotion from sergeant to deputy and, just this month, a court appeal to an arbitrator’s ruling in his discipline case.
In depositions related to the 2016 retaliation claim, DSA leaders confirmed that $200,000 was approved for the lawsuit and that they did not seek the membership vote required for expenses above $5,000 because the money came from the legal defense fund, which they said doesn’t require the same democratic approval.
The legal defense budget in 2013, by comparison, came to just $70,000.
In multiple emails sent to members in the past couple years, Morrissey and Winslow justify the recent litigation as something that benefits the whole union.
“For years now, it’s no secret that Sheriff Laurie Smith has engaged in a pattern of retaliation against Don Morrissey and other DSA members,” they wrote in an Aug. 9, 2016, email explaining why union dues were paying for Morrissey to file a retaliation claim against Smith. “She has passed him over for promotions, denied him special assignments and banned him from instructing at the academy. Why has she retaliated against him? Because he’s the leader of our association and has fought for us.”
In a July 20, 2017, email, Morrissey again tried to quell doubts about the lawsuit.
“I’m the lead plaintiff because I’m the DSA president and I have the biggest target on my back,” he explained in a missive titled “Setting the Record Straight.” “But there are many amongst you who have stood up for what’s right and suffered detriment to their careers as a result. We are suing to make it stop—and it will stop.”
A judge dismissed the case later that year. But many union members say they never heard from Morrissey or Winslow about the outcome, or about how losing the claim put the DSA on the hook for the county’s legal fees.
Deputy Joe LaJeunesse—a retired U.S. Army major who ran against Smith and Hirokawa in the primary—said he has repeatedly raised questions about the DSA’s legal costs.
“[Morrissey] says he’s doing it on behalf of the union, but I’m not really convinced that’s the case,” LaJeunesse said. “When I ask about it, I never get a clear answer.”
Had the DSA asked him to authorize legal defense funds for the Morrissey arbitration and appeal or the 2016 retaliation claim, LaJeunesse said he would’ve said no.
“We members did not vote on his lawsuit he claims is in the behalf of the membership,” LaJeunesse said. “As a union dues-paying member I did not vote to spend on his lawsuit. Now, after spending over $200,000 and raising our legal defense funds dues, another lawsuit is moving forward on Morrissey’s behalf and I hope our union dues aren’t going to pay for that, too.”
Similar concerns arose about the union’s spending on a new facility. LaJeunesse said union leaders went “way over budget” to move to another building and then came back to members with their hands out looking for more money to pay the difference.
Morrissey and Winslow have been met with similar complaints about mismanagement and lack of transparency through their work with the Police Officers Research Association of California, commonly known as PORAC, which is the largest public safety organization in the state. Winslow succeeded Morrissey as head of the advocacy group’s Central Coast chapter, which fellow board members say has failed to keep a comprehensive record of meeting minutes for the past two years.
The faction of DSA members who plan to exit the group by July 1 unless Morrissey and Winslow resign said they’re in the process of finding another entity to manage their legal defense fund, which for many of them is the most important dues-funded expenditure.
“The texts are embarrassing,” said one member, who asked to withhold his name. “But combined with all the financial issues, I have no faith left in Morrissey’s ability to lead.”
Many DSA members became aware of the texting scandal with the rest of the public in late 2015 when the Mercury News broke news of the investigation into 3,000 messages. But few outside Morrissey’s inner circle knew about the discriminatory things he personally sent or responded to until his lawyer unsealed an arbitration opinion that upheld his 2016 demotion from sergeant to deputy.
Last week, San Jose Inside became first to report on the contents of the newly unsealed ruling, which cast Morrissey in an unforgiving light. The embattled union boss fell in rank from lieutenant to deputy in the span of five years for browsing porn at work and later for failing to report hateful text messages. But the veteran officer spun a narrative that cast him as the victim and the demotions as payback for supporting Smith’s re-election opponents in 2014 and again this year with Hirokawa.
Several union members said the recently unearthed arbitration ruling shattered their image of Morrissey as a persecuted whistleblower. Others said it made them realize how much of a liability he’s become.
“I wasn’t privy to everything before,” Sgt. Davis said in a phone call Friday. “But now that all this came out, it’s too much. It’s way too much. It tarnishes the profession and it tarnishes the department I work with.”
Revelations about Morrissey’s complicity in the hateful texts were enough to prompt PORAC to squeeze him off the executive board, for which he served as secretary and was running for vice president. They were also finally enough for Hirokawa—who has hesitated to condemn the union boss, citing concerns about privacy and free speech rights—to urge Morrissey to resign from the DSA.
“I believe he should step down, based on what I have today,” Hirokawa said.
He then added one of his usual caveats.
“But I still have questions about how his discipline was justified.”