A Rialto police officer working on a drug task force and an Orange County criminal defense lawyer were arrested Monday after a federal grand jury indicted them on bribery charges in connection with a 2009 criminal case.
Officer Aaron Scott Vigil, 41, of Highland, and attorney Lawrence Anthony Witsoe, 67, of Mission Viejo, surrendered to the FBI after being named in the three-count indictment, which was unsealed Monday.
The indictment, handed down June 1, alleges that Vigil, while serving as a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Riverside, agreed to accept a $2,500 bribe from Witsoe in exchange for falsely telling a prosecutor that a man facing assault and battery charges was a useful federal informant.
Witsoe and Vigil are charged with conspiracy and soliciting and accepting a bribe by a public official. Witsoe is charged with an additional count of bribery of a public official.
Both men appeared in federal court in Santa Ana on Monday and entered not guilty pleas. They were released on $5,000 bond.
The allegations are the latest scandal to hit the Rialto police. In November, two officers quit and four others were severely disciplined after an internal investigation into allegations of sex with strip-club workers at police union headquarters. The investigation came after a waitress at the strip club made allegations of group sex, on-duty sex and other liaisons inside union headquarters and the agency's narcotics office.
In the federal bribery case, prosecutors allege that Vigil and Witsoe falsely told the Orange County district attorney's office that a client represented by Witsoe cooperated with and "provided substantial assistance" to the DEA.
The FBI was tipped off, however, and monitored the transactions with the help of the Orange County district attorney's office.
"The client of Mr. Witsoe was so troubled by the proposal and contacted another lawyer who brought it to FBI's attention," Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert J. Keenan said.
According to the indictment, the scheme began in 2009 when Witsoe told the client he could potentially get the assault case dismissed for a sum of money — initially $1,000 but later increased to $2,500. Witsoe said he could have a DEA agent call the district attorney's office and explain how the client was a useful informant; Witsoe then would ask the prosecutor to consider the work the client had performed for the federal agency.
Vigil allegedly then contacted the Orange County district attorney's office on several occasions and explained that Witsoe's client had provided "reliable information" regarding drug traffickers, leading to the DEA seizing $110,000 in drug money.
When the district attorney dismissed the case, Witsoe instructed the client to wire the $2,500 to a certain account, according to the indictment. Witsoe then wrote a check to the ex-wife of an associate of Vigil and told the client the money would be used to pay the officer's friend and the friend's ex-wife.
If convicted, Witsoe faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in federal prison, and Vigil faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years.