Former San Bernardino County official agrees to plead guilty in Baldwin Park bribery scheme

A former San Bernardino County planning commissioner has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges for funneling bribes through his company to a Baldwin Park councilman in exchange for the councilman’s votes and influence in the city’s cannabis permitting process, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday.

As part of a plea deal, Gabriel Chavez, 65, of Upland will plead guilty to one count of bribery and has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators from the FBI and IRS on a larger, ongoing probe that involves public officials throughout Southern California.

The former Baldwin Park councilman, Ricardo Pacheco, took a similar deal in 2021 after he got caught taking bribes to support a police union contract. Pacheco’s plea agreement indicates that case and the cannabis scheme involving Chavez are all part of the same investigation.

Chavez was appointed to the San Bernardino County Planning Commission in June 2018, but resigned in November 2018 after the FBI executed a search warrant at his home. Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya and former Compton Councilman Isaac Galvan were raided at the same time.

In an interview at the time, Chavez said he did not know why he was under investigation.

Ricardo Pacheco(Keith Birmingham, San Gabriel Valley Tribune/SCNG)

Chavez’s Claremont-based internet marketing company, Market Share Media Agency, acted as the intermediary between Pacheco and at least two companies that paid him to intervene in Baldwin Park’s cannabis rollout in 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Pachecho kept 60% of the bribe and the rest went to Chavez.

The two companies paid $170,000 to Chavez and as much as $93,000 trickled down to Pacheco. Chavez used coded text messages to let Pacheco know when he had bribes to pass on, describing the payments as dropping off “documents.”

In one text exchange, Pacheco told Chavez to “check the printing on the docs” because he hadn’t provided enough cash during a previous meeting.

“The last time the printing was too light,” Pacheco wrote.

“Haha … this time it’s full color ink,” Chavez responded less than 20 minutes later.

The former planning commissioner kept a running tally of the bribes in a draft email with the subject line “Dodge Truck.”

Money for votes

In exchange, Pachecho not only voted in support of the companies on two different occasions, he helped secure the necessary votes from other City Council members, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated.

Both companies received permits.

Some of the bribes were disguised as consulting payments between a public official described as “Person 14” and Chavez’s marketing company using a template for a sham “consulting agreement” provided by Tafoya, Baldwin Park’s city attorney, according to the plea agreement.

Tafoya, described as “Person 1,” allegedly told Pacheco that Chavez could use the agreement to approach companies seeking cannabis cultivation agreements, Pacheco’s separate plea agreement states. The bottom of the template listed Tafoya’s number.

“Person 14” awarded a $14,500 no-bid contract in Huntington Park to Chavez’s company and made a $5,000 donation to a church associated with school attended by Pacheco’s child, the plea agreement states.

The agreement between Person 14 and Chavez included a nondisclosure agreement.

‘Discretion is a must’

“Discretion is a must for us and most appreciated,” read one email between the two men.

The public official isn’t identified, but his description, which states he is Commerce’s city manager and a former Montebello Unified School District board member, matches Edgar Cisneros, the former city manager of Huntington Park. He has not been charged.

Tafoya has not been charged either and he “won’t be,” said his attorney, Mark Werksman.

“The statement of facts doesn’t implicate him in any illegal or inappropriate behavior,” Werksman said. “It merely describes a large cast of city officials who were used by the criminal conspirators to effectuate their criminal goals.”

The city attorney did not know a bribery scheme was underway and did not assist in anyway, Werksman added.

Prior scrutiny

Tafoya is still Baldwin Park’s city attorney, though an outside attorney is now handling cannabis-related matters. Tafoya faced scrutiny last year after it was revealed that one of the cannabis permits in Baldwin Park went to a company called Tier One Consulting, which was run by Anthony Willoughby and his son, Anthony Willoughby II, before it was sold to a third party.

Willoughby is the personal attorney of Galvan, a former Compton city councilman, and his son later was hired by Tafoya as assistant city attorney to work on cannabis specifically.

Galvan is not mentioned directly, but the plea agreement states that Chavez believed Tafoya removed one of the marijuana companies from an agenda at the request of a person described as a Compton city councilman. That same councilman allegedly was upset because a friend hadn’t been selected to represent the marijuana company in its pursuit of a permit in Baldwin Park.

Chavez met with Pacheco and Tafoya, still described as Person 1, and “told them that Marijuana Company 3 felt extorted.”

“Neither Pacheco nor Person 1 pushed back at this accusation,” the plea agreement states. “Instead, Person 1 acted with indifference and intimated that it came with came with (sic) the territory.”

A federal bribery charge calls for a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, a three-year period of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.

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