LOS ANGELES—A Santa Fe Springs City Councilman was named today in a federal bribery case that alleges he took thousands of dollars in cash bribes from the operator of a marijuana store who wanted to influence the city to allow his store to stay open.
Joseph Serrano Sr., 62, who from the end of 2010 through October 2011 served as the mayor of Santa Fe Springs, has agreed to plead guilty to a felony bribery count in a plea agreement that was also filed this morning in United States District Court.
“A public official is entrusted with the well-being of the community he or she serves, no matter how large or small,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “Here, Mr. Serrano chose to use his public office to shamelessly line his own pockets rather than use his elected position for the public good. The Department of Justice will continue to act as a watchdog for the public to protect them from self-serving officials like Mr. Serrano.”
In the statement of facts in the plea agreement, Serrano admits that he asked the operator of the marijuana store to pay money in exchange for “information about the City’s plans to regulate marijuana dispensaries and Serrano promised that he “would do what he could with regard to the City Council’s consideration of the marijuana dispensary issue to help the dispensary operator’s dispensary stay in business. On several occasions, defendant [Serrano] did in fact provide the dispensary operator with inside information regarding the City’s regulation of marijuana dispensaries.”
Soon after he became mayor, Serrano had a meeting with the marijuana store operator, told him that he controlled one other member of the City Council, and asked for $1,500, ostensibly to pay medical expenses for a sick relative. The marijuana store operator subsequently gave Serrano a $1,500 check and prepared paperwork to make it appear the money was a loan.
After this first payment, the marijuana store operator became an FBI informant and began recording a number of conversations with Serrano. During a meeting in late 2010, the informant gave Serrano $1,500 in cash and Serrano told the marijuana store operator: “I think you’re gonna be fine. I think you’re gonna hang in there” and that Serrano and another City Council member were “behind your cause” and “have your back” with regard to the City’s regulation of dispensaries, according to the plea agreement. Serrano also told the informant: “And I have to say, I can’t say to you directly. . . . Because if I say it directly then that’s you, know, . . . that’s bribe money, . . . . Um, we, you have, we have your back.”
During subsequent meetings in 2011, the informant made several payments to Serrano of between $1,700 and $3,000, according to the statement of facts. During a March 2011 meeting, Serrano asked the informant if he could receive monthly cash payments of at least $1,600, which Serrano stated was the amount of his mortgage payment. “I don’t want to say being put on the payroll, but on a monthly basis getting something from you,” Serrano allegedly asked.
Serrano admits in the plea agreement that he took $10,000 in cash that had been provided by the FBI to the informant, and that the total amount of bribes was $11,500. The FBI’s Acting Assistant Director In Charge in Los Angeles, Timothy Delaney, said, “Mr. Serrano was hired to be accountable and to set a good example in Santa Fe Springs, but instead he is charged with flouting the democratic process by allowing cash to influence his decisions, instead of the best interest of city residents.” A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in court.
The charge of bribery carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. The plea agreement contemplates a sentence of approximately three years in federal prison. The actual sentence to be imposed in this case will be determined by a United States District Judge. Serrano has agreed to appear for an arraignment in United States District Court on July 12.
The case against Serrano was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.