Baldwin Park city attorney created cannabis bribery scheme, plea deal alleges

Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya allegedly came up with the idea for the bribery scheme orchestrated by former Councilman Ricardo Pacheco and sat in on a meeting where the elected official asked for at least $30,000 in payoffs from a cannabis company, according to a newly unsealed plea agreement signed by Pacheco.

Tafoya has not been charged, but allegations made in Pacheco’s plea agreement, signed last year and unsealed Friday, Oct. 7, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, suggests the city attorney, who was raided by federal investigators alongside two others in 2020, may have violated his legal and ethical duties to the city by, at a minimum, not reporting the crime.

As part of his deal, Pacheco agreed to this “statement of facts” under penalty of perjury.

Tafoya is not directly named in the court filings and is instead referred to as “Person 1,” an individual described as having “served as the Baldwin Park City Attorney since in or around December 2013.”

Baldwin Park approved its first cannabis cultivation ordinance in August 2017 and city officials at the time pitched it as a chance to generate millions in much-needed revenues for the struggling San Gabriel Valley city.

Tafoya approached Pacheco before the vote and told the councilman he should support efforts to bring cannabis to Baldwin Park because Pacheco could “personally profit,” according to an exhibit attached to Pacheco’s plea agreement.

This 2014 file photo shows Robert Nacionales-Tafoya, Baldwin Park’s city attorney. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News/File)

“Person 1 explained that defendant should find an individual he trusted who would not talk (the ‘intermediary’), instruct the intermediary to represent himself as a ‘consultant’ to companies seeking Cultivation Development Agreements, and promise to deliver a development agreement to the company in exchange for a $150,000 fee,” federal investigators wrote. “The intermediary would then share this $150,000 fee with defendant who would then work with Person 1 and others on the City Council to get the Cultivation Development Agreements approved for that applicant.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office believes Tafoya was present at five different meetings between Pacheco and another individual, described as a Compton city councilman, in which Pacheco openly discussed taking bribes to secure his votes. Tafoya allegedly shared updates on the status of the development agreements.

Tafoya and the same Compton councilman allegedly were working together to secure a marijuana license in the City of Commerce.

Commerce City Manager Edgar Cisneros, who also has not been charged, was mentioned in court filings as facilitating bribes that trickled down to Pacheco.

In another instance, Tafoya and Pacheco approached a marijuana company and “solicited for donations in the amount of $10,000 each” to Pacheco’s church, a political action committee he indirectly controlled and former Baldwin Park Police Chief Mike Taylor’s campaign for the West Valley Water District.

Tafoya later became the general counsel for the water district.

There is no allegation in the plea agreement to suggest Tafoya took any bribes himself. His attorney, Mark Werksman, denies Tafoya had any knowledge or involvement in Pacheco’s dealings.

“Robert Tafoya is and always has been an honest, ethical attorney that has acted legally and in the best interest of the City of Baldwin Park,” Werksman said. “A bunch of corrupt politicians, who are cooperating in order to get lenient sentences, shouldn’t be believed at all.

“The bottom line is they’re being prosecuted and not Robert Tafoya,” he added.

What happened

Pacheco ended up following the exact outline he credited to Tafoya in the plea agreement.

Gabriel Chavez, a former San Bernardino County planning commissioner, served as the intermediary — or the “fundraising guy” as Pacheco called him — and collected at least $170,000 through consulting agreements with marijuana companies vying for permits in Baldwin Park. Chavez, in his own plea agreement, admitted he took a 40% cut of the money and gave the rest to Pacheco, who in turn voted in support of each company’s bid.

Chavez and Pacheco used a template of a consulting agreement, provided by Tafoya and featuring his firm’s phone number, for the contracts between Chavez’s marketing firm and the cannabis companies.

Chavez and Compton Councilman Isaac Galvan were raided the same day that search warrants were executed at Tafoya’s offices in November 2020. Chavez has agreed to plead guilty to a single count of bribery and plans to cooperate with investigators in exchange for leniency.

Pacheco agreed to similar terms in January 2021 after he got caught taking bribes from a Baldwin Park police officer working with the FBI in 2018.

The former councilman was forced to turn over $302,900 in bribes to federal investigators, including $62,900 found buried in his backyard. He quietly retired from the council in June 2020 after more than 23 years in office. It later was revealed his resignation was a requirement of his plea deal.

Both Pacheco and Chavez face a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, three years of parole and a $250,000 fine.

City attorney blocked from cannabis matters

Baldwin Park prohibited Tafoya from working on cannabis-related matters in 2021 after he was raided and the Southern California News Group reported that Tafoya had hired a former recipient of a cannabis license as his assistant city attorney.

A company run by the attorney, Anthony Willoughby II, and his father secured one of the first cannabis permits, then sold the company to a third party.

At the time, other cannabis operators raised concerns about a conflict of interest when Willoughby II showed up at their compliance hearings.

The father, Anthony Willoughby, is Galvan’s personal attorney.

Galvan, who was arrested for election fraud last year but hasn’t been charged in the federal case, was directly responsible for the hiring of Tafoya’s wife at Compton City Hall.

An attempt last year to put the city attorney’s contract out to bid last year failed to garner support, despite the ongoing controversies.

In a statement, Councilwoman Monica Garcia, who opposed the attempt, said Baldwin Park “will not tolerate corruption of any kind.”

“The authorities are investigating these allegations and, based on their findings, the City will respond appropriately,” she stated.

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Allegations ‘concerning’

Mayor Emmanuel Estrada, elected in 2020, called the allegations against Tafoya “concerning.”

Baldwin Park has struggled for years to rein in its agreements with various cannabis companies, which have argued the city’s fees are unevenly charged and improperly spent.

One lawsuit, filed before Pacheco was charged, accused the city of giving a monopoly to a marijuana distributor. That company, Rukli Inc., later gave up its exclusivity to settle a different lawsuit accusing it and Baldwin Park of “racketeering.”

“We’re trying to figure out as we go what happened in the past and we’re trying to make sure none of this ever happens again,” Estrada said.