LOS ANGELES (AP) – With his hands tucked behind his head, then-Moreno Valley City Councilman Marcelo Co appeared relaxed with a large stack of $100 bills in front of him on a table.
What he didn’t know was the real estate broker who gave him the money while looking to influence a politician was actually an undercover FBI operative.
On Tuesday, authorities announced the 64-year-old former councilman had agreed to plead guilty to a bribery charge after accepting $2.3 million in what is believed to be the largest illegal payment ever taken by a U.S. public official in an undercover sting.
Court records show Co will plead guilty to one count each of bribery and filing a false tax return. He will make his first court appearance next month and could face up to 13 years in prison.
Authorities said Co promised the operative that he could control a voting majority of the five-member council to sway land use decisions. After last November’s election, Co said he was part of “Club 3-0,” referring to the three votes he believed he could secure for any changes he sought, authorities said.
Records show that Co eventually agreed to sell a 30-acre parcel he owned in Moreno Valley, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, to the undercover operative for $5.3 million. The land was appraised at $710,000, but Co said once zoning laws were changed by the council, the parcel would increase in value 500 percent, court documents say.
“Mr. Co orchestrated an elaborate and brazen scheme to undermine the democratic process in Moreno Valley,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. “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.”
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said the bribe is believed to be the largest taken by a public official in an undercover operation.
Co’s attorney, Ryan Okabe, declined to comment about the case.
At a meeting in January, Co and the operative met and agreed that publicly filed documents would reflect a $3 million sales price for Co’s land. Authorities said Co then took $2.3 million in cash.
A grainy surveillance photo released by federal investigators shows rows of $100 bills on a table in front of Co. Federal investigators contacted Co soon after the meeting and all the money was returned.
Authorities also said Co accepted bribes totaling $15,000 from the operative, saying he would always vote in favor of any of the operative’s projects. The money also was going to be used to support the 2012 campaigns of two candidates who would create Co’s voting majority if they were elected, court records show.
The two candidates, whose names weren’t released, were elected last year. Authorities declined to comment about whether anyone else would face charges.
Co was elected to the council in November 2010 and resigned from his seat in August after being charged in state court in an unrelated welfare fraud case.
The case against Co is the latest in a series of civic corruption scandals that have plagued Southern California in recent years.
Most notably was an investigation of huge salaries and generous benefits in the working class suburb of Bell.
Closer to Moreno Valley in neighboring San Bernardino County, corruption investigations have nabbed other officials.
Former Upland Mayor John Pomierski was sentenced in October 2012 to two years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal bribery charge.
Last month, San Bernardino City Councilman Chas Kelley resigned and dropped out of a race for mayor after he pleaded guilty to perjury for failing to disclose nearly $75,000 in campaign contributions. The money was used for non-campaign purposes, authorities said.
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