Former Moreno Valley City Councilman Marcelo Co pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges Tuesday after authorities said he accepted $2.36 million.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, says the bribe is believed to be the largest ever accepted by a U.S. public official in an undercover operation.
Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that 64-year-old Marcelo Co, an ex-Moreno Valley city councilman, would plead guilty to one count each of bribery and filing a false tax return. He could face up to 13 years in prison.
“Mr. Co orchestrated an elaborate and brazen scheme to undermine the democratic process in Moreno Valley,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. in a statement. “Whether he was motivated by power or greed, these crimes constitute a wholesale violation of his oath to work for the citizens who elected him.”
Birotte says the FBI and local prosecutors have been looking into corruption in the Inland Empire city for nearly two years.
“The case against Mr. Co is the product of an ongoing investigation," Birotte said. "Mr. Co is the first person to be charged in that investigation. We will follow the evidence where it takes and we will file charges when and if the evidence supports those.”
A message left for Co's attorney, Brian Newman, was not immediately returned.
Co agreed to sell a 30-acre parcel he owned to the operative for $5.3 million. Prosecutors say Co then pocketed $2.3 million. In this case, the FBI agent posed as a businessman seeking favors who plopped wads of cash down on a table.
Co was elected to the City Council in November 2010 and resigned in August after he was charged in state court in an unrelated welfare fraud case.
“It is a very sad day for the citizens of Moreno Valley when one of their elected council members sacrifices his legal and ethical obligations for power and greed,” said Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach in a statement. “This type of unlawful conduct by Mr. Co undermines the very fabric of good government and what we all hope and expect from our elected officials.”
Moreno Valley is a city of nearly 200,000 people that sits just east of Riverside.