Baldwin Park city attorney resigns amid federal corruption probe

Longtime Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya has resigned, just days after federal investigators unsealed court records alleging he supported a corrupt councilman’s bribery schemes.

Tafoya has served as city attorney since 2013.

The Baldwin Park City Council unanimously accepted his resignation Wednesday night, Oct. 12, following a review of his law firm’s contract in closed session. Tafoya agreed to waive a requirement that the city give him 60 days notice before terminating his contract.

His attorney, Mark Werksman, said Tafoya determined his resignation was in the city’s best interest as the allegations against him were “too much of a distraction for him to be able to perform his duties.”

“He denies these allegations vehemently, but his first duty is to be an effective city attorney for Baldwin Park and he can’t do that now with these lies swirling around him,” Werksman said. “It’s hard to represent a client when you’re being falsely accused of conspiring with some corrupt politicians, so he thinks it is best that the city have new counsel to represent them.”

Tafoya will instead focus on his private practice, Werksman said.

Best Best & Krieger will serve as interim city attorney until the City Council can conduct a search for Tafoya’s replacement, according to Mayor Emmanuel Estrada.

“We’re going to set a high standard for hiring a new city attorney,” Estrada said.

Estrada called for Wednesday’s special meeting after learning about the allegations contained in the federal court filings. Other councilmembers agreed it would be best to review the contract in light of the controversy, Estrada said.

Tafoya is caught in a quagmire created by a plea deal struck between federal prosecutors and former Councilman Ricardo Pacheco. Pacheco was busted after taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from a police officer, who was working undercover for the FBI, to support a contract with Baldwin Park’s police association.

Last year, Pacheco agreed to plead guilty to a bribery charge and to cooperate with a far-reaching federal investigation in exchange for leniency. He has turned over $302,900 in bribes, including $62,900 found buried in his backyard, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The former councilman admitted to soliciting bribes repeatedly, most of which related to efforts to bring legal cannabis to the city. Pacheco’s plea agreement, unsealed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Oct. 7, alleges the original idea for one of the schemes came from Tafoya, who suggested Pacheco could personally profit by offering cannabis companies his support.

Tafoya allegedly told Pacheco he could conceal the bribes by finding an “individual he trusted who would not talk” to serve as an intermediary. The middle-man then would represent himself as a consultant to companies seeking cannabis permits in Baldwin Park, collect a $150,000 fee and then split the money with Pacheco.

Pacheco followed this to the letter. He enlisted now former San Bernardino County Planning Commissioner Gabriel Chavez to serve as the intermediary and the pair collected as much as $170,000 before they were caught. Chavez has similarly agreed to plead guilty to a bribery charge and to cooperate with investigators.

Pacheco’s plea agreement alleges Tafoya not only offered his idea, he also participated in meetings where the councilman asked for $30,000 in illicit donations and others where bribes were openly discussed. Tafoya allegedly created “hit pieces,” funded by bribe money, to attack the opponents of former Police Chief Mike Taylor during his run for the West Valley Water District board, prosecutors allege.

Tafoya later became the district’s legal counsel and Pacheco was given a high-paying assistant general manager’s job allegedly as a reward for funding Taylor’s campaign.

Baldwin Park has struggled for years to fix the prior administration’s poorly implemented cannabis program. The city has faced numerous lawsuits over the rollout, which saw one company landing the exclusive right to distribution, while others were charged uneven fees. Allegations that council members took bribes have plagued the program since the beginning.

In September 2020, Chris Kuberry, a former Baldwin Park police lieutenant who helped regulate the cannabis industry in Baldwin Park, filed a sworn declaration alleging he received complaints from three cannabis businesses that they had been asked to pay “as much as $250,000 cash in a brown paper bag to city officials.”

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Tafoya, who negotiated each of the original cannabis agreements, was removed from handling such matters last year after the Southern California News Group reported that he had hired a former recipient of a cannabis license as his assistant city attorney. The hire raised concerns about a conflict of interest when the attorney showed up at compliance hearings for other cannabis companies.

That assistant city attorney, Anthony Willoughby II, works for a law firm that represented Compton Councilman Isaac Galvan, a family friend of Tafoya who helped his wife land a job in Compton.

Federal investigators simultaneously raided Tafoya’s office and the homes of Chavez and Galvan in 2020. Tafoya and Galvan have not been charged.

Voters in Baldwin Park will decide Nov. 8 whether to expand the city’s cannabis permitting — currently limited to distribution, manufacturing, cultivation and laboratory testing — to include retail sales.

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