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Former official of SoCal city gets five years for bribery, attempted arson

Jermaine Wright, a former city councilman and mayor pro tem of Adelanto, received the lightest sentence possible under federal law.

(CN) — A federal judge sentenced former Adelanto, California, Mayor Pro Tem Jermaine Wright to five years in federal prison following his conviction on bribery and attempted arson charges. 

After the sentencing, Wright's lawyer David Kaloyanides said the judge's decision was "the best we could've hoped for," though "not unexpected" since Wright had no criminal history. Wright's aunt, who was present for the sentencing along with Wright's wife, said she was relieved and happy with the sentence.

In June, a jury found Wright, who sat on the Adelanto City Council, guilty of taking a $10,000 cash bribe — from an undercover FBI agent — to vote to expand the area zoned for marijuana businesses. The jury also found Wright guilty on one count of attempted arson after he agreed to pay another undercover FBI agent $1,500 to burn down Wright's restaurant, Fat Boyz Grill, in order to collect a $300,000 insurance policy.

Prosecutors had asked for a 79-month sentence — a bit more than 6 and a half years. In their sentencing memo, they wrote that Wright had "betrayed the trust placed in him as a public official," and that his "serious criminal conduct, his willingness to commit other crimes, and his various attempts to obstruct justice, all gravitate in favor of the imposition of a serious sentence."

According to prosecutors, Wright had tried to pay someone to assault him in part to gain sympathy from his estranged wife, but also to feign memory loss in the hope that charges against him would be dropped. Wright was in fact found beaten up outside his restaurant. A recording device given to him by the FBI, ostensibly in order for him to cooperate with a corruption probe, was found destroyed on the sidewalk.

Wright's defense attorney asked for a 60-month sentence, the minimum sentence for attempted arson. He argued Wright hadn't actually obstructed justice with his fake beating.

"Staging an assault so Mr. Wright could feign memory loss did not impede the investigation in any way," Wright's lawyer wrote. "Law enforcement already had an undercover agent who had posed as the arsonist, another who posed as someone trying to bribe Mr. Wright, and the Confidential Human Source who, among other things, was the person with whom Wright discussed staging the assault. Nearly all the meetings and conversations were recorded. Mr. Wright’s plan to stage an assault and the assault the following day had no effect on the investigation if for no other reason that law enforcement knew the truth ahead of time."

Kaloyanides also mentioned that Wright had struggling with substance abuse for around six years.

On the question of obstruction of justice, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal sided with the prosecution. He also found Wright was in a "high-level decision-making or sensitive position," which made for the possibility of a longer sentence. Nevertheless, the judge went with the lower sentence.

Wright has already served nearly a year in jail, time which will count toward his total sentence.

Given an opportunity to speak to the court before his sentence, Wright declined.

Adelanto, a sleepy desert town of less than 40,000 residents in the Mojave Desert, made headlines for its desire to "cash in" on recreational marijuana, which was legalized in California in 2016. One Los Angeles Times story from 2017 reported "Adelanto wants to be the ‘Silicon Valley of medical marijuana.'" But the city became known less for innovation around the weed economy than for brazen corruption by a string of city officials, including the mayor at the time, Richard Kerr, who's awaiting trial on charges of bribery and wire fraud.

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