CALEXICO—On Thursday, May 21, two Calexico City officials were charged in federal court with “accepting cash bribes in exchange for promises of official action by the city.”
The officials are City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem David Romero and Economic Development and Financial Advisory Commissioner Bruno Suarez-Soto. The former was due to become Mayor in July this year, while the latter was recently appointed to his position as a commissioner.
Prosecutors state that on December 19, 2019, the two officials met with an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. The operative claimed to represent several investors who wanted to open a cannabis dispensary in the city.
Court filings show that Romero and Suarez-Soto “guaranteed the rapid issuance of a city permit for the dispensary,” and also agreed to “revoke or hinder other applicants if necessary” to ensure that the undercover agent’s application was successful, in exchange for $35,000.
When asked by the agent if the officials may later ask for more money, Romero apparently said that “this is done. Set and sealed.” He added that the money would have to be paid beforehand because they had done similar work before – Suarez-Soto said “this isn’t our first rodeo” – and they had not received the agreed-upon fee. The officials consented to accepting half the payment up front, and half “when it’s a for sure thing.”
Court records note that the operative asked if the $35,000 would “get us in the front of the line” of applicants, to which Suarez-Soto said “hell yeah.” Romero then claimed that he “didn’t want to say it in front of everybody, but it will.”
Romero and Suarez-Soto allegedly met the operative again on January 9, 2020, and Romero mentioned how fortunate it was that they were working together. He also said that the people in charge of approving the agent’s license were “my best friends at the entire City Hall.” Laughing, he said “fuck, yeah” when asked if his “best friends” had signed off on the plan yet.
Court filings claim that at the parking lot outside the restaurant where the three met, the agent gave Suarez-Soto $17,500 in cash while Romero looked on. The FBI operative asked if “we’re good,” and Romero said “trust me. In my line of business, I can’t fuck up. Which means he [Soto] can’t fuck up.”
The other $17,500 was handed over in another parking lot on January 30. Both men allegedly admitted that they made a shell corporation to launder the bribe payments.
The FBI interviewed the two officials after the second meeting, and both falsely denied making any “guarantees” to the operative. Romero also falsely denied any involvement in an agreement with the agent, and Suarez-Soto claimed he had not received any payments from him.
“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.”
The defendants were arraigned on Thursday via video teleconference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard G. Skomal. They were released on $10,000 bonds and have their next court date scheduled at 10:30 a.m. on July 2, 2020, before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo.
“Public officials must act with honesty and integrity when doing the public’s business. If civic leaders won’t uphold these standards, we will.” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “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.”