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South El Monte mayor resigns after admitting he accepted bribes from a city contractor

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 mayor of South El Monte stepped down from his post Tuesday, an unceremonious end to more than a decade of public service following the revelation last month that he regularly accepted bribes from a city contractor.

In a brief letter, Luis Aguinaga told administrators in the San Gabriel Valley city that his resignation took effect immediately.

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

Aguinaga, 48, admitted last month that starting in 2005, he regularly accepted bribes of at least $500, with cash payments left in a City Hall bathroom or in the passenger pocket of a car, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

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The long-running corruption scheme involved a contractor who provided construction and engineering services to the city. The contractor handed over the bundles of cash about twice a month until 2012, when the FBI caught Aguinaga accepting money in a South El Monte hotel bathroom.

If the contractor did not quickly hand over the cash after being paid by the city, Aguinaga would follow up, federal prosecutors said.

On some occasions, Aguinaga would accept larger sums, which he would split with an unidentified public official. Neither the contractor nor the other official were identified by federal prosecutors.

Since federal prosecutors announced Aguinaga’s decision to enter a guilty plea to the corruption charge, residents and City Council members have publicly called for his ouster while also pledging to eliminate graft in the city of about 20,000 residents. Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Olmos said last week that elected leaders were working to restore the community’s trust.

“If there’s anyone who has had their hand on the cookie jar, believe me, they will be dealt with,” Olmos said.

Councilman Joseph Gonzales said officials planned to review all contracts, most of which were approved without competitive bidding, and called for an inquiry by State Auditor Elaine Howle.

The five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also adopted a motion Aug. 2 to formally ask Howle to conduct a “thorough investigation into improper governmental activities” in South El Monte, calling the city a “high risk local government agency.” The motion was sought by Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes South El Monte.

Aguinaga, who was elected in 2003 and also serves on the board of a local water agency, is scheduled to appear in federal court on Wednesday for arraignment. The count to which he agreed to enter a guilty plea carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

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UPDATES:

11:15 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that the arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday.

This article was originally published at 9:05 p.m.

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