A Calexico city councilman and a city commissioner were charged in federal court Thursday with taking bribes in exchange for promises to fast-track the licensing of a cannabis dispensary, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Councilman David Romero, 36, was next in line to be mayor of the Imperial County city, and Bruno Suarez Soto, 28, was recently appointed to the city’s Economic Development and Financial Advisory Commission. The two are accused of accepting $35,000, split between them, from an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of investors seeking to open the dispensary, according to charging documents filed in San Diego federal court.
The cash bribes were delivered in envelopes, handed to the pair in restaurant parking lots on two occasions, according to the charges.
The defendants were arraigned on bribery conspiracy charges on Thursday via video teleconference and released on $10,000 personal appearance bonds secured by their own signatures. They pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say Suarez and an unnamed family member of Romero set up RS Global Solutions, purporting to be a consulting firm. However, the company was a shell for Romero and Suarez to funnel their bribes, according to prosecutors.
The first meeting with the undercover agent occurred in December at a Calexico restaurant. Suarez claimed that he and Romero “guarantee the processing with the city” and that the $35,000 would give the dispensary a “top spot in the queue” of permit applicants, according to the charges.
Romero later explained that the money would have to be paid up front because other people they had done this kind of work for hadn’t followed through with payment, according to court documents. Suarez then added: “This isn’t our first rodeo,” the documents said.
The city officials then agreed to accept the bribe in two payments: one was delivered in envelopes in a hand-off on Jan. 9 outside an El Centro restaurant, and the rest on Jan. 30 in a similar rendezvous, prosecutors said.
The officials allegedly offered reassurances at both meetings. Romero explained to the undercover agent during one that the people who would have to approve the license were his “best friends at the entire City Hall,” according to court documents.
Romero also promised to hold up the permits of cannabis dispensary competitors, prosecutors said.
After cash exchanged hands the second time, FBI agents and federal task force investigators swarmed in and questioned Romero and Suarez, the charges allege. Both men denied making any promises to the undercover agent.
“Mr. Romero is a veteran who has served his country honorably, a civil servant who did his best to serve his community faithfully, and a father devoted to his family,” said Romero’s defense attorney, Anthony Colombo Jr. “We look forward to addressing the allegations in the future as the case progresses.”
Suarez’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
There are currently 13 active cannabis licensees — retail and distribution — in Calexico, according to the state Bureau of Cannabis Control.