LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — A former member of the Moreno Valley City Council has agreed to plead guilty to a federal bribery charge for taking a $2.36 million cash payment from an undercover operative posing as a real estate broker, authorities said Tuesday.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says the bribe is believed to be the largest ever accepted by a U.S. public official in an undercover operation.
Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that 64-year-old Marcelo Co will plead guilty to one count each of bribery and filing a false tax return.
Prosecutors say Co agreed to sell a 30-acre property for $5.36 million at a meeting on Jan. 30 but that the publicly filed documents would reflect a sale price of only $3 million. At this meeting, Co accepted $2.36 million in cash, promising to rezone the land, prosecutors said.
Surveillance video captured an image of Co sitting reclined with his hands behind his head at a table with the piles of cash.
“It was like watching reality TV,” said one official. “Unfortunately it was real.”
Court documents filed Tuesday outline a bribery scheme in which Co told a businessman and an undercover FBI operative posing as a real estate broker that he would control a voting majority of the Moreno Valley City Council and would be able to guarantee land-use decisions that would benefit the businessman and the land broker, prosecutors said.
Co also promised to always vote in favor of land-use decisions that would benefit the real estate broker, a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson said.
Court documents allege Co had a plan to cover his tracks, with the four council members rotating their “no” votes so it would appear they did not always vote uniformly.
Four of the five sitting council members’ homes were searched in April, according to Michele Patterson, Assistant to the City Manager. All four remain under investigation.
Co was arrested in August on unrelated charges of stealing government aid intended to be used to care for his mother.
Neighbors said they were shocked to learn of the charges.
“He seemed like a really nice guy though,” said neighbor Susan Banbuskirk. “He came over here and asked us if we’d vote for him and stuff like that.”
If the plea deal is approved, Co could face 13 years in prison. He has also agreed to testify at any further trial associated with the investigation.
The mayor declined to speak to CBS2 and a message left for Co’s attorney, Brian Newman, was not immediately returned.
“It is a very sad day for the citizens of Moreno Valley when one of their elected council members sacrifices his legal and ethical obligations for power and greed,” Riverside County Dist. Atty. Paul Zellerbach said. “This type of unlawful conduct by Mr. Co undermines the very fabric of good government and what we all hope and expect from our elected officials.”
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