Mayor Pro Tem and Economic Commissioner accused of accepting bribes for dispensary permits
EL CENTRO, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - The U.S. Attorneys Office for the Southern District of California announced Thursday it will prosecute two Calexico city leaders on federal bribery charges.
Prosecutors say Calexico City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem David Romero, and Bruno Suarez-Soto, a commissioner on the city's Economic Development and Financial Advistory Commission, accepted bribes in exchange for promises of official city action.
On Thursday, a federal judge formally charged Romero and Soto with conspiracy to commit bribery. They were released on $10,000 personal appearance bonds. They'll face a judge again on July 2.
The FBI sting took place in the month of January, beginning on the 9th, and ending with the men's arrest on the 30th.
Charging documents show, during that time, Romero and Soto accepted $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent. That agent was posing as an investor seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico. Documents show Romero and Soto "guaranteed" the needed permit would be issued quickly, and the officials would either revoke or slowdown approval of other applicants.
Court papers also show both men admitted to taking bribes in the past. Referring to the $35,000 payment, records show the men told the agent, "This isn't our first rodeo."
In additon, court documents show, when the undercover agent asked whether the payment of $35,000 would “get us in front of the line” of applicants, Soto answered, “Hell yeah.” Romero added that he “didn’t want to say it in front of everybody, but it will.”
The FBI says its agent met with Romero and Soto on three other occasions. It says money was exchanged during two of those meetings. It says the men assured the agent throughout the process that the bribe would cut through " so much [explitive] that exists" with the city of Calexico.
Court documents also show the men told the agent they'd created a shell company to launder the proceeds from their bribery scheme.
Prosecutors say Romero and Soto lied to the FBI after their arrest. They say Romero falsely denied being part of any agreement with the undercover agent, and denied anyone had made any “guarantees” to the agent. They say Soto made similar denials.
“Public officials must act with honesty and integrity when doing the public’s business,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer.
“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. We will vigorously enforce the law whenever a public official puts his own greed ahead of the interests of his constituents.”
If convicted Romero and Soto face up to five-years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office continue to investigate this case. They urge anyone with information to contact the FBI at at 1-858-320-1800 or 1-877-NO-BRIBE (662-7423). Information can also be submitted on the FBI's online tipline.