Federal authorities say the $2.3-million cash bribe a former Moreno Valley city councilman accepted from an undercover agent in January is believed to be the largest such transaction involving a public official in a sting operation in the U.S.
With $2.3 million worth of stacked bills on the table that January day, Marcelo Co looked relaxed as he closed a lucrative deal to deliver the necessary vote to rezone a parcel of land, believing he had accepted a bribe from a real estate broker, federal prosecutors said.
But the broker was actually an undercover federal agent, and the transaction was captured on camera. Co, 64, would be confronted by agents moments later.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced that Co — who resigned last summer in the wake of unrelated legal trouble — has agreed to plead guilty in what they described as the first criminal case to emerge in a months-long corruption investigation in the Riverside County city.
Co has been charged with one bribery count and another count of filing a false tax return, local and federal officials said at a news conference Tuesday in Riverside. He is set to make his initial court appearance in December and could face up to 13 years in federal prison, prosecutors said.
U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. called Co's crimes an "elaborate and brazen scheme to undermine the democratic process in Moreno Valley." Birotte added that it "speaks volumes about the magnitude of what's going on."
In exchange for money, prosecutors said, Co promised that the majority of the council would vote in favor of changing the zoning on a piece of land, significantly elevating its value. The land had been valued at about $710,000, but through Co's plan, the value would have jumped to more than $5.3 million. That value would include a publicly listed price of $3 million, plus the under-the-table cash payment, authorities said.
Timothy Delaney, a special agent in charge of the FBI criminal division in Los Angeles, said Co took his council duties "as seriously as if he were playing a game of Monopoly."
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.
He resigned in August when he was 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, court records state. He is set to be arraigned in that case this month.
In the bribery case, Co has agreed to cooperate in the ongoing corruption investigation, according to the plea agreement.