Santa Fe Springs official took bribes while lying to FBI
Santa Fe Springs Councilman Joseph Serrano Sr. repeatedly shook down a medical marijuana dispensary owner who was working as an FBI informant, taking a total of $11,500 in payments in 2010 and 2011, according to a plea agreement released Thursday by the U.S. attorney's office.
The 28-page agreement is the latest example of corruption in a small Los Angeles County town –- and shows the brazen extent to which the Santa Fe Springs official negotiated the cash bribes even after he had been interviewed by FBI agents probing allegations of corruption in the city.
At times, his appeals for payment took a desperate tone. At one point, Serrano asked the dispensary owner if they could set up a monthly payment plan of at least $1,600 -– the amount of Serrano's mortgage, according to the document.
The relationship between the two began in late 2010, as Santa Fe Springs was discussing how to deal with dispensaries, including a possible cap on the number allowed to operate or an outright ban. Serrano, who was then mayor of the city, approached the dispensary owner and promised to feed him information and use his influence on the council to help his shop stay open. According to the plea agreement, Serrano claimed to have control of the vote of one of the other council members.
The bribe payments began with a check for $1,500 that Serrano said he needed to help pay for a relative's medical bills. The payment was made to look like a loan. Shortly after, the dispensary owner became an FBI informant. Over the next six months, in recorded meetings, the informant paid Serrano $10,000 in cash.
During the course of that period, Serrano was interviewed twice by FBI agents probing corruption in the city, who asked him about his interactions with dispensary operators. On May 2, according to the plea agreement, Serrano assured agents that he had never received any gifts or payments from dispensary operators, except for a gift card from one clinic's landlord, which he said he had donated to charity.
The next day, Serrano met with the informant in a car outside a Sizzler restaurant in La Mirada and took a $1,700 cash payment.
Despite the bribe payments, the city moved to shut down all marijuana clinics in town, sending out orders for them to shut down by Sept. 26, 2011.
During his last meeting with the dispensary owner on Sept. 14, 2011, Serrano "repeated several times that he needed $1,600 to pay his mortgage" and told the informant, "I told you I would help you" and "I told you I would be loyal to you."
Santa Fe Springs Mayor Bill Rounds issued a statement Thursday saying he is "greatly disappointed" in Serrano's behavior but believes that the corruption is isolated.
"The government of Santa Fe Springs is clean and transparent," Rounds said. "We play by the rules. We take seriously our moral and ethical responsibilities and the trust that has been conferred on us by the community. Councilmember Serrano's alleged actions do not at all represent the city or any other city officials, elected or otherwise. "
Serrano's attorney declined to comment on the plea agreement.
-- Abby Sewell and Ruben Vives
Photo: Joseph Serrano Sr. Credit: Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times