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Ex-South El Monte Mayor Luis Aguinaga is free till he pleads in bribery case, judge says

Luis Aguinaga has admitted to accepting at least $45,000 in bribes, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
(City of South El Monte)

The former mayor of South El Monte made his first court appearance Wednesday on a federal corruption charge accusing him of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from a city contractor.

Standing in a black suit with a gray tie that matched the scruff of his beard, Luis Aguinaga acknowledged that he understood what federal prosecutors had alleged: that he had accepted regular cash payments totaling $45,000 from 2005 to 2012, often in a City Hall bathroom.

Aguinaga, 48, has agreed to plead guilty to the charge, and the court proceeding was a procedural step before he formally enters his plea.

In her downtown Los Angeles courtroom, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean P. Rosenbluth told Aguinaga that he was allowed to remain free on a $20,000 unsecured appearance bond.

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But the judge attached a number of conditions: Aguinaga is barred from traveling outside the Central District of California, which includes the Inland Empire and stretches from Orange to San Luis Obispo counties. He was to surrender his expired passport, and the judge reminded him he was forbidden from talking to witnesses and victims in the case.

Sitting in the courtroom’s pews were Aguinaga’s family members as well as Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Olmos, who has assumed mayoral duties in the San Gabriel Valley city.

After the brief hearing, Aguinaga quickly left the courtroom and his attorney, Peter Johnson, declined to comment, stretching his arms to keep reporters away from his client.

Aguinaga, who was elected in 2003 to the South El Monte City Council and also sits on the board of a local water agency, submitted his resignation on Tuesday.

“It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to have represented equally residents and businesses in the community,” he wrote in his letter.

The long-running corruption scheme that Aguinaga admitted to last month involved an unnamed contractor who provided construction and engineering services to the city, according to court papers. The contractor typically handed over bundles of at least $500 in cash on a roughly twice-per-month schedule, according to court papers.

If the contractor did not send over the money soon enough, Aguinaga would follow up with a reminder, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The FBI caught Aguinaga accepting cash in 2012 in the bathroom of a local Ramada Inn. Other payments were left in the passenger pocket of a car.

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At times, Aguinga accepted larger sums and split the cash with another public official who remains unidentified by federal prosecutors, according to court papers.

The lingering questions over that official’s identity have cast a pall over the city, prompting local leaders to pledge they are rooting out corruption.

“If there’s anyone who has had their hand [in] the cookie jar, believe me, they will be dealt with,” Olmos said at a news conference last week.

Members of the City Council as well as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have called on State Auditor Elaine Howle to examine “improper governmental activities” in the city of 20,000 residents.

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A future court date for Aguinaga has not been set, but he is expected to enter his plea before U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin, who will also impose a sentence. The bribery charge to which he agreed to enter a guilty plea carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

For more breaking news from California, follow me on Twitter at @MattHjourno.


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