Lisa Serna-Mayorga told the court, in part: "I offer a heartfelt apology for the pain that I have caused."

Serna-Mayorga, ex-city staffer and daughter of late mayor, is sentenced

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

She carries a name as big as any in more than two decades of Sacramento politics, one that lends title to government buildings and is molded into the bronze likeness of her father in a statue outside City Hall.

Monday in Sacramento Superior Court, tears of embarrassment and shame fell from the cheeks of Lisa Serna-Mayorga. They came when she admitted a felony misappropriation of $19,043.29 in public funds, when she brought discredit to the same name made a legend in the capital city by her father, the beloved late mayor of Sacramento, Joe Serna Jr.

"The name carries with it the mantle of responsibility," her lawyer Bill Portanova said in an interview after Serna-Mayorga entered her plea. "Sometimes that mantle is a little too heavy."

In a plea deal worked out in front of Judge Laurel D. White, Serna-Mayorga admitted guilt to the single felony misappropriation count. The District Attorney's Office, meanwhile, dropped additional charges of grand theft, forging the name of former mayoral chief of staff Kunal Merchant on her purchasing statements and writing bad checks when she first tried to repay the city.

Serna-Mayorga gained access to a city credit card through her job as the former council operations manager for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

"She signed an agreement that she would only use this purchasing card for city-related purposes, and she acknowledged that using it for improper purposes would constitute a crime," Deputy District Attorney Michael Blazina told the court.

Under terms of her plea deal, Serna-Mayorga agreed to repay the city the lost funds.

Besides ordering restitution, White sentenced Serna-Mayorga to five years of probation and 270 days in jail. Serna-Mayorga was ordered to turn herself in April 15. Her lawyer said she will apply to serve the time at home under electronic monitoring.

The judge said it will be up to the Sheriff's Department to decide whether to accept her into an electronic-monitoring program, but her lawyer expressed confidence that it won't be a problem.

"Nonviolent, nondangerous people are routinely accepted in the alternative sentencing program so that there is room in the jail for people who truly need to be kept away from the public," Portanova said. "The mother of two on a first offense in a purely financial crime is a classic candidate for acceptance into the alternative sentencing program."

Serna-Mayorga, 40, whose brother Phil Serna is a Sacramento County supervisor, admitted to the charge in the DA's complaint that she twice used her city purchasing card to pay for trips to Disneyland for her and her family.

She admitted using the card to pay for meals at El Novillero, the Grange, the Esquire Grill and elsewhere; to paying for groceries at Bel Air Markets and Trader Joe's; and to charging more than 1,000 iPad downloads, including songs from Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

The misappropriations began in July 2009 and ran through June 2012, Blazina said. In all, more than 120 charges on her city-issued credit card added up to the $19,043.29 in goods and services she bought.

Serna-Mayorga resigned July 19 and criminal charges were filed against her Dec. 18.

While she agreed to reimburse the city, it was unclear Monday whether Serna-Mayorga will ever regain her own good reputation.

Her first effort to get it back came in front of White with an apology during which emotion moistened her eyes and halted her voice.

"To the city of Sacramento, my friends and my family, especially my husband and children, and my brother, I offer a heartfelt apology for the pain that I have caused, and ask their forgiveness," she said.

"I am grateful for every prayer, every phone call and text message I have received over the last nine months. Their level of support sustained me during an extremely difficult time. I look forward to moving on with my life, raising my children with my husband, getting back to work and giving back to my community."

Under terms of her plea deal, for the rest of her life, Serna-Mayorga – whose father's name lends title to the city school district headquarters and the state Environmental Protection Agency building – will be disqualified from again serving in public office.

Supervisor Phil Serna issued a statement saying, "With her guilty plea today, Lisa accepts responsibility for her actions. I'm thankful that the District Attorney's Office and Judge White crafted a sentence that punishes my sister but minimizes the punishment on her children."

Serna added in his statement, "I love my sister and always will."

Serna-Mayorga left the courthouse Monday without expanding on the statement she made to the judge. Her lawyer said her case reflects an adage he has seen repeatedly in his career, that "good people do stupid things."

"It's not necessarily a product of malice or greed, but rather a slight and subtle breakdown that comes from an infinite number of factors," Portanova said. "The result is, it's always a major, life-changing event."

Portanova suggested Serna-Mayorga acted from a sense of pressure. He said a relatively minor thing such as buying lunch on the city credit card and not reimbursing it mushroomed into the major misappropriations.

"Her reaction was one of weakness, and it was allowed to fester for a while, but she has fully come to grips with her sins here," Portanova said. "She is looking forward to making it up not only by paying the money back, but through good works, however she can do it."

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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