SAN DIEGO (CN) — The acting mayor of a Southern California city was charged Thursday alongside a city economic development commissioner for allegedly accepting $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for guaranteeing a city permit for a cannabis dispensary.
Calexico city councilman and Mayor Pro Tem David Romero was arraigned via teleconference Thursday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard Skomal alongside Bruno Suarez-Soto, a former commissioner on the city’s Economic Development and Financial Advisory Commission.
According to a 10-page charging document, both men are accused of accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, paid in installments earlier this year by an undercover FBI agent who they believed represented investors seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico.
The men were released Thursday on $10,000 personal appearance bonds.
Calexico City Manager David Dale said in a statement that a news release about the charges by the U.S. Attorney’s Office was the city’s first notice of the investigation.
“The city is committed to complete integrity and transparency in its governance and processes and does not condone, and strongly condemns, the kind of conduct alleged by the federal prosecutor. Accordingly, the city will cooperate with any follow-on inquiries or requests for information and assistance from either the U.S. Attorney or the FBI,” Dale said in the statement.
The city manager also vowed to determine if any of its “processes were affected by the arrangements” described in the charging documents and to correct those processes pending the outcome of the charges.
He also confirmed Suarez-Soto resigned his position April 22, citing “residency issues.”
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement “public officials must act with honesty and integrity when doing the public’s business.”
“If civic leaders won’t uphold these standards, we will. We allege that these defendants traded on their positions of trust, selling the integrity of government in exchange for thousands of dollars,” Brewer added.
According to the charging documents, in exchange for the bribe, Romero and Suarez-Soto promised the agent they would guarantee the rapid issuance of a city permit for the cannabis dispensary and would revoke or hinder other applicants if necessary to ensure the bribe payer’s application was successful.
The transactions took place over a series of meetings this past December and January at restaurants in Calexico and El Centro in California’s Imperial Valley, about 120 miles east of San Diego.
At the first meeting on Dec. 19, 2019, the duo agreed to fast-track the FBI agent’s purported application for a cannabis dispensary permit and to delay permit applications by competitors in exchange for $35,000.
They agreed to accept half the money up-front and half “when it’s a for sure thing,” indicating they had done similar work for other people and were stiffed the agreed upon fee after the favors had been rendered, according to the charging document.
“This isn’t our first rodeo,” Suarez-Soto told the agent.
At the meeting, the undercover agent asked if the $35,000 payment would get his application to the front of the line.
“Hell yeah,” Suarez-Soto responded, according to the charging information.
At a second meeting on Jan. 9, Suarez-Soto told the agent he was fortunate to be working with the acting mayor – who was set to be sworn in as mayor in July – because Romero would cut through “so much bullshit [red] tape that exists” within the city.
Romero told the agent the people who would approve his cannabis dispensary permit were “my best friends at the entire city hall.”
The agent handed the men $17, 500 in cash at the meeting.
The men accepted a second installment of $17,500 in cash at a third meeting Jan. 30, where they also admitted to creating a shell corporation – a consulting company called RS Global Solutions – to launder the proceeds of their bribery scheme.
When the men were interviewed by FBI agents following the Jan. 30 meeting, they denied being apart of any agreement with the undercover agent, saying they had never made any “guarantees” and denied they received any payments, saying they were paid for “consulting services.”
The men could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for July 2.