RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – A Southern California politician faces federal bribery and arson charges over what the FBI says started as a bribery investigation and ended in a solicitation to burn down his restaurant.
Mayor pro tem Jermaine Wright of the Mojave Desert city of Adelanto was charged Monday in the Central District of California on one count of bribery of programs receiving federal funds and a count of attempted arson of a building affecting interstate commerce, due to the restaurant’s proximity to the highway.
According to the FBI’s affidavit, two undercover agents and an informant recorded conversations with Wright in which he agreed to vote on zoning regulations and offered his help to curtail code enforcement officers related to medical marijuana businesses in exchange for money.
Wright also asked an informant to help burn down his business, Fat Boyz Grill in Adelanto. Wright paid an undercover agent $1,500, gave him a tour of the restaurant and helped to plan the arson by giving the agent a ladder and discussed “various tactics for maximizing the damage” to the restaurant, the affidavit says.
FBI Special Agent Kevin Boles says in the affidavit he observed the tour Wright gave the undercover agent from nearby. During the tour, Wright explained the sprinkler system would be turned off over the weekend and he would be out of town, and that he expected to get $300,000 from his insurance once the deed was done according to the affidavit.
As for the bribery count, the FBI says at one meeting an undercover agent placed $10,000 in $50 bills on a table in exchange for Wright’s vote to expand zoning for a medical marijuana operation.
“That’s for you, or your nonprofit, whatever,” the agent told Wright, according to the affidavit, to which Wright supposedly answered, “My nonprofit, yes sir, thank you sir” and placed the money in his pocket.
Agents issued a search warrant at Fat Boyz Grill in October, a few weeks after Wright’s tour with the undercover agent to discuss the arson plot. During the search, FBI agents showed Wright a picture of the agent he paid to commit the arson and, according to the affidavit, Wright confessed and agreed to cooperate with the FBI.
When asked if he “engaged in any acts of bribery or corruption” as it related to the agent’s investigation of the city of Adelanto, however, the FBI says Wright said no.
But the FBI says Wright did accept bribes for his promise to rezone sections of the city. As part of its investigation into corruption in the city of Adelanto, the FBI says Wright received a $10,000 bribe in exchange “for his promise to assist a supposed marijuana transportation business” and sought bribes to “curtail code enforcement and rezone land,” according to the affidavit.
During a meeting this past June, a second undercover agent met Wright at the Fat Boyz Grill restaurant, the FBI says. The agent told Wright he wanted to move a marijuana cultivation business to Adelanto and sought Wright’s help with permits and zoning matters – specifically, the agent told Wright he wanted to purchase commercial property in an area not zoned for marijuana, the FBI says in the affidavit.
Investigators say Wright pegged the price for his vote at “20,” which the agent took to mean $20,000, and the politician said he would only accept cash “donated” through another person. When the agent asked why, Wright said the third person “keeps us out of jail,” investigators say.
The undercover agent made a follow-up call to Wright this past June, five days after their meeting at the restaurant. During the conversation the agent mentioned the price to buy Wright’s vote was $20,000, and Wright did not correct him in the recorded conversation. Later in the conversation Wright said he would “always do what’s best for the city,” investigators say.
Days later, Wright contacted the FBI informant to say he did not like discussing prices over the phone. But shortly afterward, the city posted notice of a special planning commission meeting to expand the zoning for cultivation of marijuana on its website, according to the affidavit.
The City Council voted to expand the zoning, with Wright casting his yes vote by phone. Investigators say the zoning bribery scheme implicated federal funds received by Adelanto, including about $42,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and $14,850 in federal grants.
After the FBI searched his restaurant last month, Wright contacted the FBI informant who hooked him up with the undercover agent who offered to burn down the restaurant. Wright said the agent had to “go away” as a “snitch,” investigators say.
While Wright didn’t specifically tell the informant to murder the undercover agent, investigators say Wright told the informant to “do whatever you do to get shit off my door.”
Wright was arrested Tuesday evening and was due in court on Wednesday to answer the charges, the Los Angeles Times reported.