The FBI went public Tuesday with its two-and-half-year investigation of corruption in Riverside County’s Moreno Valley by announcing that former City Councilman Marcelo Co had agreed to plead guilty to accepting a record $2.36 million bribe.
Co resigned from the council in August after being arrested on suspicion of fraud. He allegedly received $15,000 from the state as caregiver for his disabled mother while, as it turned out, she was out of the country. But this had nothing to do with that.
The former councilman was videotaped accepting piles of cash in exchange for land he owned and a guarantee that he could get the council to make lucrative zoning changes to it. The FBI called the scheme “brazen” and said it was the largest bribe an undercover agent had ever received.
Co agreed to plead guilty to one count of bribery and one count of filing a false corporate tax return in an unrelated case, and could get 13 years in federal prison. The FBI said Co “regularly traded votes, land, and confidential information in exchange for cash” and that his plea is part of a much large probe.
The FBI and local authorities raided the homes of Co and four city councilmembers in April and two dozen subpoenas were delivered to the city clerk on October 22. Top city officials testified before the grand jury last week.
The FBI agent’s affidavit said the investigation began in November 2011, a year after Co was first elected to the council. A businessman, who was a confidential source of the FBI, asked Co for help in opening a business in Moreno Valley. Co suggested that zoning changes and other land use issues could be handled favorably, and that it would help if donations were made to council candidates who would be supportive of his initiatives once elected in November 2012.
The businessman introduced an undercover FBI agent, posing as a real estate broker, to Co in January 2012, who proceeded to pitch his information and influence to both of them. Co promised a “yes” vote on any project they brought before the council and offered to rewrite the zoning General Plan in their favor once his candidates were elected. The agent gave Co $10,000 in April 2012, $3,000 in May and another $3,000 in June.
Co suggested in late June 2012 that the agent buy his property and they talked price in September. On January 30, two months after the election, they pulled the trigger.
Co reached an agreement to sell his 30-acre parcel, which had been appraised at $710,000, for $5.36 million. But the actual sales agreement would only say $3 million and he would take the balance in cash, technically, as a loan. Which he did. On camera.
Co agreed to cooperate with the investigation as part of his deal.