Former Santa Ana Councilman Tony Espinoza has pleaded guilty to a felony count of lying to federal investigators in connection with a public corruption case, a judge revealed Monday.
The plea, entered Wednesday at U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, came two weeks before Espinoza and former Councilman Ted Moreno were to stand trial on charges of participating in a 1996 scheme to extort campaign money from local businessmen.
Espinoza's plea leaves Moreno, whom prosecutors say is the central figure in the case, as the sole defendant. Last week, former City Council candidate Hector Oliveras pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud. Former candidate Roman Palacios also pleaded guilty and is expected to testify at Moreno's trial.
"I am happy for my friends," Moreno said Monday at U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. "This means their nightmares are over."
As part of his settlement, Espinoza agreed that he lied during a May 1997 interview with federal investigators, court documents say. At that time, he failed to disclose that Moreno accepted cash contributions during his campaign for Santa Ana City Council, according to the documents. Espinoza did not admit to participating in an extortion scheme.
The update on Espinoza's case came from U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor as Moreno moved Monday to change lawyers, citing disagreement over how his trial should proceed. He would not elaborate. The court granted Moreno's request to dismiss Edward Munoz and replace him with Dean Steward, former lead attorney for the federal public defender's office in Santa Ana.
Last week, Santa Ana City Atty. Joseph Fletcher ruled that Moreno cannot circumvent term limits by resigning before the end of his second term. Moreno said at the time that he will still seek reelection.
Terms of Espinoza's agreement do not require him to testify against Moreno. Deputy U.S. Atty. John Hueston said in court Monday that he plans to call neither Espinoza nor Oliveras to the witness stand.
Hueston said Espinoza's plea will not substantially change the prosecution's strategy.
"We feel that Moreno is the central ringleader in a large deal-making and fraud case of public and widespread corruption," he said. "We don't take this lightly at all."
Prosecutors said they will recommend that Espinoza be placed on probation, though he could be sentenced to up to six months in prison.
Espinoza's attorney, James Asperger, would not comment on the case because his client has not been sentenced.