Commerce Councilman Robert Fierro is taken into custody by FBI agents at… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
FBI agents arrested a Commerce councilman early Thursday after a grand jury indicted him and two family members for allegedly trying to hide illegal campaign contributions.
Robert Fierro, 39, the mayor pro tem of the industrial suburb, is also charged with telling a friend to lie to the FBI. Fierro's sister-in-law and campaign treasurer, Ana Perez, was charged with lying to the grand jury. Along with the politician's wife, Linda Fierro, 36, she was charged with witness tampering.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Bruce Searby said the three were trying to obscure large, illegal contributions that the councilman allegedly received during his 2005 campaign.
Searby said that such schemes manipulate voters by obscuring potential conflicts of interest that may allow the people they elect to "operate in the shadow" of someone else's influence.
"The public is entitled to know who is truly funding an election campaign," Searby said Thursday. "There could be a hidden agenda behind a candidate, a hidden source of influence behind a candidate for office."
Fierro did not return a call seeking comment. The city's four other council members could not be reached.
Fierro's autobiography on the city's website describes him as an elementary school teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District who has worked as a probation officer for the Los Angeles County probation department, assisting at-risk youth. His wife is also a teacher, and the couple have four children.
According to the indictment, family members and friends of the then-candidate wrote two $500 checks to Fierro's campaign in January 2005, when he was first running for office. Fierro then allegedly reimbursed the contributions by paying the donors $1,000 in cash to conceal the true source of campaign funds. According to the indictment, Fierro called a purported donor -- "Contributor A" in the indictment -- and persuaded him to lie to the FBI.
The indictment alleges that the Fierros, Perez and other co-conspirators met secretly to discuss a game plan to counter the federal grand jury proceedings and questions from FBI agents. They allegedly prepared "fraudulent stories" to cover their tracks.
Searby called contributions from such apparent backers "conduit" or "straw" contributions, designed to circumvent limits on campaign contributions and hide a source or sources of illegally excessive donations.
"Let's say I'm trying to help you win an election, and I want to give you $10,000 instead of $500," Searby said. "Then what I may do, and this is illegal, is to get a bunch of people to write $500 checks to you and pay them back. The big guy behind the scenes masks [his or her] involvement in the campaign."