CALEXICO — Former Calexico City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem David Romero and Bruno Suarez-Soto, a former commissioner on the city’s Economic Development and Financial Advisory Commission, were each sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison for taking bribes in exchange for guaranteeing a city permit for a cannabis business.
In announcing the sentences, U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo said public officials should not take positions of power to line their own pockets and that the pair’s conduct “taints how we hope to believe democracy works.”
Romero. 37, and Suarez-Soto, 29, both Calexico residents, pleaded guilty on June 11 to conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.
Per their plea agreements, Romero and Suarez-Soto accepted $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent whom they believed represented investors seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico.
In return, Romero and Suarez-Soto promised to “guarantee” 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.
Romero and Suarez-Soto had reportedly set up a dummy company, RS Global Solutions LLC, in May 2019 to act as a consultancy firm to assist cannabis permit applicants. Authorities reported it was meant to conceal their collecting of bribes from applicants who sought favorable treatment.
Both men admitted they had taken other bribes in the past. In fact, referring to this corrupt arrangement, Suarez-Soto told an undercover agent that “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
Romero previously served as Calexico’s mayor pro tem, meaning he was set to become mayor in July 2020. Suarez-Soto was 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.
Both men resigned their positions with the city in June as part of their plea agreements and Councilwoman Rosie Fernandez later was named the mayor.
“Public office is a public trust,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Anyone who violates that trust by selling the government’s business to satisfy their own greed should face a reckoning. Citizens of this district deserve no less.”
“The FBI, to include our Imperial County Resident Agency, remains committed to investigating all levels of public corruption, including those engaged in pay-to-play and bribery schemes,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner.
According to court documents and their plea agreements, Romero and Suarez-Soto met with the undercover FBI agent three times in December 2019 and January 2020. They demanded a $35,000 bribe at their first meeting on Dec. 19, 2019.
In return, Suarez-Soto told the agent that his application would be “guaranteed” once the payment was made.
He assured the undercover agent that he and Romero wouldn’t “disappear” after the payment, and Romero explained, “I can’t [disappear]. I’m mayor pro tem. In July, I’ll be mayor. If anything, I ran based on this platform — which is cannabis.”
When the undercover agent asked whether his payment would get his application to the front of the line of other applicants, per court filings, Suarez-Soto answered, “Hell, yeah,” and Romero told him he “didn’t want to say it in front of everybody, but it will.”
Romero added that he could revoke permits from other applicants if he wanted, to ensure that the undercover agent’s submission would succeed.
Romero did demand that the undercover agent pay the bribe up front, however, because he complained that he had “burn[ed] favors” and “pull[ed] strings” for other parties before who refused to pay after the favors were rendered.
At the second meeting, on Jan. 9, 2020, Suarez-Soto told the undercover agent that having Romero on board would help the agent cut through the “bulls**t [red] tape” at Calexico City Hall, according to court filings.
When the undercover agent sought to clarify what would happen with his application, Romero told him that “the people who have to approve your license” were Romero’s “best friends at the entire City Hall.”
When the undercover asked whether Romero’s “best friends” had already signed off on the plan, Romero responded, “F**k, yeah!” and laughed.
When the undercover agent handed Suarez-Soto two envelopes totaling $17,500 in cash in the parking lot with Romero looking on, per court documents, he asked the men whether “we’re good.” Romero responded, “Trust me.”
Both defendants admitted in their plea agreements they accepted a second round of cash payments totaling $17,500 in a restaurant parking lot on Jan. 30, 2020, as part of the scheme.
They also acknowledged that they accepted both payments intending to be influenced in the performance of their duties on behalf of the city of Calexico, and that the $35,000 collective bribe was not the first they had accepted as part of their scheme.
As set out in court records, both defendants were interviewed by the FBI following the second cash payment, and both were warned it was a crime to make false statements. Nevertheless, each defendant lied repeatedly to the interviewing agents, attempting to distance themselves from the corruption that had just taken place.
Both men could have faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the charge of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.