California Probation Officers Union President Charged with $600K+ Theft

Manuel Torres used to supervise probation officers for a living. He may need a probation officer in the near future. On July 29, Torres, former president of the Santa Barbara County Probation Peace Officers Association, was arrested, and a couple of days later charged, with embezzling over $600,000 from the union over the course of more than a decade. The election of a new president last year triggered an audit of “a potential large-scale embezzlement of funds,” which quickly led to Torres’ retirement and a California district attorney probe. At his August 3 arraignment in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, Torres pleaded not guilty to all 15 charges, which included embezzlement, forgery and misappropriation of public funds. He also is facing tax-related charges. Bail has been set at $500,000.

Manuel Edward Torres and his replacement, David Silva, have some bad blood between them. Torres, now 63, headed the Santa Barbara County Probation Peace Officers Association (SBCPPOA), an independent union, for two decades. A former high school and college basketball coach, he seemed a person of integrity. Yet over the last half of his tenure as president, a growing faction, led by Silva, came to believe that Torres had been diverting large sums of union money to himself. In 2019, Silva ran for president and was elected. Torres was stung. And adding to the sting of that defeat, the union board asked Torres to serve as vice president in order to mentor his replacement. He rejected this proposal outright. “Torres was not at all happy with this change to the SBCPPOA board, and he essentially walked out of the meeting and cut off all communications with Silva and the board,” wrote district attorney investigator Chris Clement.

With Torres gone, Silva acquired association bank records, discovering that Torres and a former treasurer who had left years earlier, Tara Presley, were the signees. “A review of these records revealed that Torres has been writing checks, payable to himself, and signing both Presley’s name and his own,” Clement wrote. “While two signatures are required per SBCPPOA bylaws, the fact that Presley’s signature was being used/forged and the fact that most of the checks were made payable to Torres himself was disturbing and obviously fraudulent.” An initial audit for June 1, 2013-May 31, 2019 showed that the union had spent $812,933, with $412,822 of that going to Torres. About half of the latter sum was labeled “legal defense.” But as Clement discovered, the money wasn’t necessarily forwarded to the pair of law firms providing services to Torres. A subsequent audit for earlier years turned up more missing money. The grand total of alleged thefts came to $635,254. Were that not enough, prosecutors are charging Torres with failure to file an income tax return for 2009-11 and filing a false income tax return for 2012-19. Torres insists he’s being framed. Given the evidence, a jury isn’t likely to be convinced.