California officials accused of taking pot shop bribes

Two public officials in Southern California were charged in federal court Thursday with accepting cash bribes in exchange for assistance in garnering a marijuana retail shop permit.

Calexico City Councilman David Romero, 36, and Bruno Suarez-Soto, 28, a commissioner on the city’s Economic Development, accepted $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent who they believed represented investors seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico. In return, Romero and Soto “guaranteed” the rapid issuance of a city permit for the dispensary, and to revoke or hinder other applicants if necessary to ensure that the bribe payer’s application was successful, according to a charging document.

In addition, both men admitted they had taken bribes from others in the past, according to the charging document. Referring to this $35,000 payment, the officials allegedly told the undercover agent, “This isn’t our first rodeo.”

During a Dec. 19, 2019 meeting at a restaurant in Calexico with the undercover FBI agent, Romero and Soto agreed to fast-track the agent’s purported application for a cannabis dispensary permit. The undercover agent then asked if Romero and Soto might later ask for more than the $35,000 payment, and Romero assured him that they would not, according to charging documents.

“This is done. Set and sealed,” Romero allegedly said.

Romero explained that he and Soto would require the money to be paid up front, because they had done similar work for other people, and those people had not paid the agreed-upon fee after the favors had been rendered.

Before the meeting ended, Romero and Soto agreed to accept payment of the $35,000 from the agent in two installments; half up front, and half “when it’s a for sure thing.”

The undercover agent then asked whether the payment of $35,000 would “get us in front of the line” of applicants.

“Hell yeah,” Soto answered.

Romero added that he “didn’t want to say it in front of everybody, but it will.”

On Jan. 9, Romero and Soto attended a second meeting with the undercover agent at a restaurant in El Centro. During the meeting, according to court records, Romero reminded the undercover agent how difficult it was to work with the city of Calexico, and how fortunate it was that the agent was working with Romero. Soto later added that in return for the bribe, Romero would cut through “so much bullshit (red) tape that exists” with the city.

During a discussion of the approval process for the permit application referenced in court records, Romero explained that the people who have to approve the undercover agent’s license were “my best friends at the entire City Hall.” When asked if the “best friends” had already signed off on the plan, Romero responded “Fuck, yeah!” and laughed.

At the conclusion of the Jan. 9 meeting, in the parking lot outside the restaurant, with Romero looking on, the undercover agent handed Soto $17,500 in cash and explained that he divided the first installment of the bribe into two envelopes: one with $8,800 and another with $8,700. The agent asked whether “we’re good,” and Romero responded, “Trust me” and added, “In my line of business, I can’t fuck up. Which means he (Soto) can’t fuck up.”

The defendants allegedly accepted the second installment, $17,500 in cash, during a third meeting on Jan. 30 in a parking lot outside a restaurant in El Centro. Court documents further allege both men also admitted to creating a shell corporation to launder the proceeds of their bribery scheme.

Both men are also accused of lying when interviewed by agents at the conclusion of the Jan. 30 meeting. According to court filings, Romero denied being part of any agreement with the undercover agent, and denied that anyone had made any “guarantees” to the agent. Similarly, Soto denied making any “guarantees” to the undercover agent and denied receiving any prior payments from the agent.

In addition to being a councilman, Romero serves as Calexico’s Mayor Pro Tem, meaning he was set to become mayor in July 2020. Soto was recently appointed to the city commission responsible for promoting business and community growth and coordinating with prospective developers to help them invest in the City of Calexico.

Romero and Soto were arraigned and then released Thursday on $10,000 personal appearance bonds secured by their own signatures. They are both facing up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines for conspiracy to commit bribery.

“Public corruption remains the FBI’s top criminal priority. As such, the FBI in San Diego and Imperial County has a robust public corruption program that is dedicated to uncovering criminal conduct of public officials,” said Acting FBI SAC Omer Meisel. “The investigation of Mr. Romero and Mr. Suarez-Soto serves as another example of the FBI’s commitment toward accountability for those serving the public and holding positions of trust.”

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