After allegedly accepting $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for political favors, two city officials in California were recently charged in federal court. Shortly after the charges were announced, the mayor issued a press release agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement with any follow-up assistance or investigations.
According to court documents, Calexico Mayor Pro-Tem David Romero and former Economic and Financial Advisory Commissioner Bruno Suarez-Soto met at a restaurant in Calexico with the undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of several investors seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico. During the meeting on December 19, 2019, Romero and Soto allegedly agreed to fast-track the agent’s purported application for a cannabis dispensary permit and guaranteed its rapid issuance in exchange for a $35,000 bribe. They also offered to delay permit applications by competitors.
While discussing payment in two installments, Soto was reported as stating, “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
On January 9, 2020, Romero and Soto attended a second meeting with the undercover agent at a restaurant in El Centro, California. At the end of the second meeting, the undercover agent handed Soto $17,500 in cash in the parking lot as Romero kept watch.
On January 30, Romero and Soto allegedly accepted another bribe of $17,500 in cash from the undercover FBI agent. Court documents further allege both men also admitted to creating a shell corporation to launder the proceeds of their bribery scheme.
After the third meeting, FBI agents interviewed Romero and Soto separately. According to court filings, Romero falsely denied being part of any agreement with the undercover agent, and denied that anyone had made any “guarantees” to the agent. Similarly, Soto falsely denied making any “guarantees” to the undercover agent and denied receiving any prior payments from the agent.
On Thursday, Romero and Soto were charged with conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.
Shortly after the charges were announced, Calexico City Manager David Dale issued the following statement: “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. The city, through its counsel, has already reached out to the U.S. Attorney. At this early stage, however, the charges are just that, and the Mr. Romero and Mr. Suarez-Soto are presumed not guilty of the charges until guilt is proven in a court of law. That said, the city will take action to address these serious allegations which strike at the heart of city governance and integrity.”