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Former California city official convicted on bribery, arson-for-hire charges

In addition to asking undercover agents for bribes and to burn down his restaurant, Jermaine Wright solicited an assault severe enough to leave him with memory loss.

(CN) — A federal jury has convicted former Adelanto, California, Mayor Pro Tem Jermaine Wright guilty on charges of accepting a $10,000 cash bribe and hiring a man to burn down his restaurant to collect insurance money.

After California legalized marijuana in 2016, Adelanto — a quiet, desert town in the area known as the Inland Empire, population 38,000 — made a name for itself by trying to "cash in" on the new industry. One Los Angeles Times headline from 2017 read, "Adelanto wants to be the ‘Silicon Valley of medical marijuana.'"

But it wasn't just the city that was trying to cash in on legal weed. Elected officials, too, were trying to make some easy cash by rezoning large swaths of land in the city for marijuana growing, in exchange for cash bribes. The mayor at the time, Richard Kerr, who came up with the "Silicon Valley of weed" moniker, is set to go on trial in September on charges of bribery and wire fraud.

Jurors late Wednesday convicted Wright, 46, on charges of accepting a cash bribe from an undercover FBI agent who had told Wright that he wanted commercial property rezoned for marijuana transportation.

In June 2017, Wright met with the agent at Wright's restaurant Fat Boyz Grill in Adelanto. The agent told Wright he wanted to start a marijuana cultivation business in the city, but the property he wanted to use was outside the area zoned for marijuana growing. The rezoning of the land would require a vote from the Adelanto City Council. Wright made it clear that his vote was very much for sale.

"Are you asking me what my price is?" Wright asked the agent, during their conversation, according to the criminal complaint filed against Wright in 2017. He told the agent that his price was "20," which the agent took to mean $20,000. Wright explained that he only accepted cash, and that it had to be paid as a "donation" through one of his associates — "because he keeps us out of jail," Wright said, according to the complaint.

As it happened, the Adelanto City Council later voted to expand the zone in which marijuana could be grown and Wright never got his $20,000. But that October, the same FBI agent came to Wright saying he wanted to start a marijuana transportation business. Wright agreed to help rezone the area the business would be located. According to the complaint, the agent "then placed $10,000 on a box being used as a table, made up of two stacks of $50 bills, and told Wright, 'That's for you, or your nonprofit, whatever.'"

Wright responded, "My nonprofit, yes sir, thank you sir," and pocketed the cash.

That year, Wright had told an FBI informant he was looking for someone to set fire to Fat Boyz Grill to collect the insurance money. The informant introduced Wright to a man who they called an "electrician," who turned out to be another undercover FBI agent.

The restaurant was one of five businesses located in a strip mall on a five-lane street. The two suites on either side of the restaurant were vacant. Wright told the agent, "the less it looks like just me, fine. If three go, three go." Wright said he stood to make $300,000 from the insurance policy on the restaurant. The agent agreed to take the job, and said his price would be $1,500.

When interviewed by FBI agents about the attempted arson, Wright initially confessed and agreed to cooperate with the FBI's public corruption probe into the city of Adelanto. He himself denied ever accepting a bribe payment.

Days later, according to the complaint, Wright confronted the FBI informant and told him that the man who had agreed to set fire to his restaurant was a "snitch," and told the informant to make the agent "go away."

"You brought shit to my door," Wright told the informant. "I am already in enough hot water as it is. You brought shit to my door, get shit off my door." Though he did not explicitly say he wanted the agent murdered, he said, "I don't give a fuck what happens. I really don't, but this shit needs to be cleaned up."

It was a difficult time for Wright. Not only was he facing potential criminal charges, but he was estranged from his wife. He later spoke to the informant about another scheme — he wanted to be beat up "to the point where I have memory loss," he said. Wright explained he wanted to be badly assaulted, according to the complaint, so that his wife would "return to him and comfort him while he was in the hospital," but also because he thought that if he had memory loss, the charges against him would be dismissed.

Wright suggested the informant place a dead rat next to Wright after the assault, so that the FBI might "suspect someone has found out that I have talked to them." Wright offered the informant $500 or $600 to inflict the beating. The informant demurred.

That November, Sheriff's deputies responded to a call from the Fat Boyz Grill. Wright had been lying on the ground in the parking lot. Although he had no visible injuries, he claimed to have been assaulted. An audio recording device, given to him by FBI agent to help in their public corruption probe, was lying broken on the ground.

"They tried to get it from me," Wright told the FBI.

Wright faces a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison for the arson charge, and a maximum of 30 years. Sentencing is scheduled for September.

Former mayor Kerr meanwhile stands accused of accepting at least $57,500 in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for helping people get permits and licenses needed to operate marijuana-related businesses. He has pleaded not guilty.

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