Friday, April 9, 2021

U.S. Forest Service inspector charged in $900,000 kickback scheme

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An employee of the United States Forest Service tasked with keeping the agency’s vehicles in working order has been charged in federal court with steering nearly $900,000 in maintenance contracts to the owner of an Inland Empire auto body shop in return for bribes and kickbacks.

Francisco Isaias, a resident of San Bernardino, surrendered to authorities Monday morning and was arraigned in Riverside’s federal courthouse on a 19-count indictment charging him with honest services fraud and conflict of interest.

The man Isaias is accused of conspiring with, Joaquin Perez, was arrested last week. Perez owns an auto body shop in Bloomington, a community south of Fontana, that was the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Forest Service contracts that prosecutors contend were structured in a way to bypass competitive bidding requirements.

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Perez’s attorney, Timothy A. Scott, said his client denies the government’s charges and “looks forward to his day in court.” Isaias’ attorney declined to comment. The Forest Service suspended him in 2017, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office said.

As a fleet maintenance inspector, Isaias chose the businesses that maintained and repaired the Forest Service’s vehicles and approved payments for such work, the indictment says. Beginning no later than 2013, he steered to Perez’s business $898,528 in contracts, a majority of which the inspector personally approved, prosecutors charge.

The two would meet at Perez’s shop in Bloomington to arrange how much his business would charge the Forest Service, the indictment says. To avoid rules requiring that federal contracts exceeding $2,500 be put to bid, they divvied up large payments into smaller ones that passed beneath this threshold, according to the indictment.

In return, Perez plied the inspector with payments and other benefits that exceeded $360,000, prosecutors allege. Perez paid Isaias nearly $50,000 and purchased, at a cost of $314,000, tractor trailers and trucks for the inspector’s trucking business, the indictment says.

Prosecutors have charged Isaias with honest services fraud, meaning he is accused of depriving his employer — the Forest Service — of its right to his honest employment, free of obligations to anyone other than the federal government.

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Prosecutors have leveled the charge in recent years against a broad range of defendants, from the aides of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who shut down the George Washington Bridge in an act of political retribution, to the dozen or so university coaches and test proctors accused of taking bribes in what has become known as the college admissions scandal.

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