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CA Mayor Resigns After Bribery Plea

Thursday, August 11, 2016

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The mayor of a Southern California city resigned Tuesday (Aug. 9) after admitting he took bribes from a construction contractor.

Luis Aguinaga was charged July 28 by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Central District of California, and agreed to plead guilty. His resignation as mayor of South El Monte, CA, was reported by local media the evening of Aug. 9; he faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

Luis Aguinaga
San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority

Luis Aguinaga was charged July 28 with accepting bribes, and agreed to plead guilty. He has since resigned as mayor of South El Monte.

A contractor, who entered a plea agreement and has not been identified, worked with the FBI in a sting operation in 2012, proving that Aguinaga was accepting money in exchange for city contracts. According to U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker’s office, the bribery was ongoing, from 2005 until 2012.

Media reports indicate that the contractor performed construction and engineering services for South El Monte.

$45,000 Over Seven Years

As the U.S. Attorney’s office describes the procedure, when the contractor would receive payment from the city for a job, he would then remit payment to Aguinaga; if he did not pay up within a few days of receiving his check, Aguinaga would get in touch, asking for payment.

Cash in an envelope
© iStock.com / BackyardProduction

Aguinaga has reportedly admitted to accepting at least $45,000 over seven years of continued bribery.

The payments would normally be $500 or $1,000 at a time, often left either in a City Hall bathroom or in a car. This took place every two to three weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Aguinaga has reportedly admitted to accepting at least $45,000 over seven years of continued bribery.

The government’s description of the sting operation notes that Aguinaga received $2,000 in cash from the contractor-turned-informant that day, and “kept at least $1,000 for himself.” News reports note that prosecutors have said Aguinaga would sometimes split payments with another official; that official has not been identified.

Aguinaga Background

Aguinaga was first elected mayor of South El Monte, which is in Los Angeles County, in 2003, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As mayor, Aguinaga also served on the board of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. A WQA representative told D+D News that Aguinaga’s position on the board was tied to his elected position with the City of South El Monte; as he is no longer mayor, he is no longer eligible to serve on the WQA board either.

Bribery Nearby

In 2012, the mayor, a city council and a code enforcement official in nearby Cudahy, CA, were all charged with accepting bribes related to the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in that town. Cudahy’s mayor was later sentenced to a year in prison; that case involved $17,000 in bribes.

South El Monte map
Map data © 2016 Google

Aguinaga was first elected mayor of South El Monte, which is in Los Angeles County, in 2003.

The Cudahy case led to Aguinaga taking precautions to try to avoid speaking aloud about the bribery deal when the sting operation took place in late 2012, according to the U.S. Attorney.

“Defendant was nervous about meeting with CW [“confidential witness”] because Cudahy city officials, including the Mayor, had recently been arrested and charged with accepting bribes,” the plea agreement reads. “While defendant was speaking with CW, defendant showed CW his cell phone on which he had written ‘don’t talk’ or ‘don’t saying anything,’ and defendant asked CW several times to accompany him to the bathroom.”

Filling the Mayor's Role

Since Aguinaga’s resignation, Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Olmos has taken over the post. According to media reports, the position may be filled with a special election in spring 2017, but an official plan has not been announced.

The U.S. Attorney overseeing the case said with the charges, the federal government hopes to remedy a situation that threatened the trust the citizens of South El Monte had in their officials.

“This long-running corruption scheme compromised the effective governance of South El Monte,” said Decker. “Corruption like Mr. Aguinaga’s is a threat to government institutions and undermines the public’s trust in all government officials. The residents of South El Monte deserve better.”

   

Tagged categories: Contractors; Criminal acts; Ethics; Government contracts; Laws and litigation

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