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Former Moreno Valley councilman pleads guilty to taking bribe

A former Moreno Valley city councilman has pleaded guilty to taking a $2.3-million cash payment that federal officials have described as the largest bribe ever accepted in a sting operation.

Marcelo Co, who resigned from the council last year as mayor pro tem, also pleaded guilty Monday to a separate charge of filing a false tax return, all part of an agreement for his cooperation in an ongoing corruption investigation in the Riverside County city. The deal for his guilty plea was announced by federal prosecutors in November.

Co, 65, could face up to 13 years in prison when he is sentenced, which is scheduled for July. He is free on $100,000 bond.

In January, Co met with a man who he thought was a real estate broker but who turned out to be a federal agent. Co accepted the money — stacked on the table in front of him — as part of a deal to deliver the necessary votes to rezone a parcel of land, inflating the property's value considerably. 

The meeting was captured on camera and he was confronted by agents moments after he made the deal.

Co has also agreed to plead guilty to lying on tax filings, a charge separate from the bribery case. For the 2010 tax year, IRS officials said that tax returns for his business, Quik Pack Systems, stated the company had taken in $146,500, although he allegedly knew that figure was, in fact, at least $258,000.

Co was elected to the council in 2010 and became mayor pro tem in January, but resigned in August because of unrelated criminal allegations.

At the time of his resignation, he had been charged with fraudulently collecting nearly $15,000 in home health services intended for the care of his mother, although he often sent her to the Philippines, where she was cared for by his siblings, according to court records. 

The bribery count marked the first criminal charges to emerge from a months-long investigation — the joint effort of local and federal officials — into allegations of political corruption in Moreno Valley.

The probe first gained attention in April, when warrants were issued to search the homes of the mayor, council members and the office of a developer. Authorities disclosed that the search warrants had been issued and announced the agreement with Co, but have said little else about the investigation and its scope.

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Twitter: @rar

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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