The former mayor of Santa Fe Springs who shook down a medical marijuana dispensary for $11,500 in bribes — leading to a widespread corruption probe in nearby Cudahy — was sentenced Monday to two years in federal prison.
"This was pure greed," U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said as he sentenced Joseph Serrano Sr.
Serrano continued to take cash bribes even after FBI agents twice interviewed him. A day after talking to the agents, he met with the dispensary owner outside a Sizzler in La Mirada, where he accepted a $1,700 bribe. By that time, court documents show, the pot shop owner was working for the FBI.
When Serrano took the bribes in 2010 and 2011, Santa Fe Springs was considering limiting the number of marijuana stores in the city or banning them entirely. In return for the payments, Serrano promised he would help the dispensary owner stay in business and provide him with inside information. Serrano was one of two council members on a subcommittee studying marijuana stores in the city.
In his sentencing memo, Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph N. Akrotirianakis suggested that Santa Fe Springs is part of a disturbing regional trend.
"Corruption at the highest levels of smaller cities … appears to be rampant in Los Angeles County and in this judicial district and the need for general deterrence is acute," he wrote.
Serrano, 62, who sold health insurance, had served as a councilman for nine years. He was the city's mayor when he took the bribes and resigned after his arrest.
After he was shaken down by Serrano, the dispensary owner became an FBI informant and worked with authorities in Cudahy, where he was asked for bribes when he inquired about opening up a marijuana shop in that city.
His taped conversations with councilmen David Silva and Osvaldo Conde and code enforcement chief Angel Perales led to their indictments. All three have pleaded guilty to soliciting and accepting a total of $17,000 in bribes. They're awaiting sentencing.
Documents prosecutors released this summer, including taped conversations, revealed Cudahy as a city steeped in corruption, where bribes were seemingly an accepted way of doing business. The documents refer to fixed council elections, cash passed to city officials in a shoe box and drug runs to buy narcotics for use in City Hall.
The investigation is continuing.
Serrano struggled to maintain his composure when he addressed the judge Monday. He said he took the bribes because of financial pressures. The judge said he didn't buy the excuse, pointing out that a pre-sentencing report showed the former mayor was worth $600,000.
"He could have arranged to get those funds without entering into a bribery scheme," Wilson said.
The informant paid his first bribe on Nov. 10, 2010, when he and the councilman met at a McDonald's in Santa Fe Springs. The informant gave Serrano a check for $1,500, which they tried to disguise by signing a loan agreement.
A few months later, according to the plea agreement, Serrano said he needed to be paid "a minimum" of his house payment, which was $1,600 a month.
Serrano asked for probation while the prosecutor recommended he serve 37 months in prison. Serrano also must serve three years' probation and pay $10,000 restitution to the FBI.