Calexico City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem David Romero (second from left) sits on the dais with his fellow council members during a meeting in City Hall on April 15. Romero and a former city commissioner were arraigned May 21 on charges of conspiracy to take bribes from an undercover federal agent. Romero and Bruno Suarez-Soto are alleged to have accepted $35,000 from an FBI agent posing as a developer looking to get a cannabis business permit from the city. COURTESY PHOTO
Calexico officials prefaced their comments with the presumption of innocence, but there is clearly anger and extreme disappointment with City Council Member David Romero and his former political appointee, who are alleged to have solicited $35,000 in bribes from an undercover federal agent.
The mayor wants Romero to resign from office, the city manager vows to look into any issue the council member ever backed, and a county supervisor who represents the border area and served alongside Romero for about a month calls this “another black eye for Calexico.”
Meanwhile, Romero, who was never arrested on the federal charges but waived his right (as did his alleged co-defendant, Bruno Suarez-Soto) to indictment and went straight to being arraigned and released the afternoon of May 21 on conspiracy to commit federal bribery, seemed unfazed when he spoke to this newspaper.
“I can’t comment right now since it’s an ongoing investigation; hence, I have no statement,” Romero said May 22, when asked to speak to the charges against him and Suarez-Soto, Romero’s relative and appointee to the city Economic Development/Financial Advisory Commission.
Romero explained he is awaiting advice from his attorney on whether and when he should make a public statement.
Uncertain how long Romero would stay on the phone, he was asked point blank whether he was innocent of the charges against him. A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not say how Romero and Suarez-Soto pleaded during the arraignment.
“No comment,” Romero said. “I can’t …”
Romero was then asked when a public statement might be forthcoming.
“Not sure at the moment; I’m hoping sooner than later. … Don’t want to lie. Hopefully soon,” he added.
Do you intend to remain on the Calexico City Council?
“There’s no decision on whether I’m resigning or not, so it stays as is,” Romero said, adding there is “no decision on my part” and, again, he is awaiting legal advice.
Unsolicited, Romero offered:
“I honestly took this call out of courtesy. I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding from my constituency.”
And so far, he doesn’t seem to be.
Although Romero ditched a special meeting of the Calexico City Council on the afternoon of May 21 that was scheduled just one hour after his arraignment, he was photographed by Brown Bag Coalition leaders at Border Friendship Park later that evening feeding the homeless with his church group, CEDES Comunidad Cristiana Valle Imperial in Calexico, or CEDES IV.
Brown Bag co-founder Maribel Padilla posted the photo to Brown Bag’s Facebook page later that night and allowed the Calexico Chronicle to use it for this story.
Romero and Suarez-Soto, who is more commonly known around the community as Bruno Suarez, were arraigned at 2 p.m. via video teleconference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard G. Skomal, who was in his San Diego courtroom.
Romero and Suarez-Soto pleaded not guilty to the charges against them through Zoom from the office of Suarez’s El Centro attorney, Donald LeVine, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Pilchak when reached May 24. Pilchak added Romero’s attorney, Anthony Colombo Jr., attended through teleconference from his San Diego office.
The federal prosecutor couldn’t say why the news release announcing the arraignment did not include how the defendants pleaded.
Romero and Soto are accused of accepting $35,000 in cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent who they believed represented investors seeking to open a cannabis dispensary in Calexico, according to the federal charging documents in the case.
“In return, Romero and (Suarez-)Soto ‘guaranteed’ the rapid issuance of a city permit for the dispensary, and to revoke or hinder other applicants, if necessary, to ensure that the bribe payer’s application was successful. … Both men admitted they had taken bribes from others in the past,” the May 21 press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated. The release was sent out to the media and city officials sometime between 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
“Referring to this $35,000 payment, it is alleged they told the undercover agent, ‘This isn’t our first rodeo,’” the release stated.
In a series of meetings that occurred between the undercover FBI agent and Romero and Suarez from Dec. 19, 2019, to Jan. 30, 2020, money allegedly changed hands twice in installments, Romero allegedly informed agents he had associates inside City Hall that could help prioritize cannabis permit applications and push the undercover agent’s application to the front of the queue, and the men allegedly told the agent they had formed a shell company to accept bribes, with Suarez-Soto as the manager of the company, RS Global Solutions LLC, according to the federal documents.
Pilchak would not comment why the men were never taken into custody or officially arrested. He said it was the U.S. Attorney’s policy to comment only on those things that are part of the public record, which included the media release and the charging document. He did acknowledge that it was agreed between the prosecution and defense attorneys that Romero and Suarez would appear for the arraignment date and that their release was agreed upon as long as they posted a $10,000 bond each.
The next court appearance is at 10:30 a.m. July 2 before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo in San Diego federal court.
Due to his successful election to a first term on the council in 2018, Romero is relatively well-known in the community. Suarez, on the other hand, seems to be more of unknown quantity, who city officials say resigned from his position on the economic development commission April 22 due to residency issues. Calexico City Manager David Dale said Suarez said he was moving to or had moved to Mexicali.
Still, this newspaper will attempt to shed more light on Romero and Suarez.
But first, Calexico officials want the public to know the allegations against the two men, especially Romero, are not indicative of Calexico’s reputation of old, or the long-held, oft-repeated insult, “Only in Calexico.”
Calexico Officials Offer Harsh Criticism
With a special City Council meeting scheduled for budget hearings for the upcoming fiscal year, city officials, council members and the city attorney were already gathered in City Hall on May 21, so within hours of Romero and Suarez’s arraignment, legal counsel advised policymakers not to comment to the media, and Dale, on behalf of the city, crafted an impassioned and lengthy response to the allegations.
Dale clarified that city officials had been hearing rumors that either an arrest or an indictment of Romero and another person was imminent by federal authorities for about a month or a little more, but city officials did not know the exact nature of the charges or the extent of the allegations that would be filed until they were made public that afternoon in the U.S. Attorney’s press release and the charging documents filed in San Diego federal court.
“We all know how Calexico rumors are. You can’t believe it till you see it,” Dale said May 23.
As complete as Dale’s statement seemed at the time, it didn’t go far enough for Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge, who was still angry over the allegations against the two city representatives when Hodge was contacted for comment May 24.
“The city of Calexico strongly condemns these egregious and appalling allegations against Mayor Pro Tem Romero and Bruno Suarez. Calexico will not tolerate or soft pedal this alleged criminal behavior. We are a city of transparency and integrity,” Hodge said.
“I’m saddened and especially disappointed in this young man (Romero) … I hope that he resigns. It would be best for him and the City Council,” the mayor said. “I know that by law he has the right to sit on the City Council until convicted … Even though this is an alleged crime, I don’t, in my heart, feel comfortable with him on the dais.”
Romero is due to become mayor in July, according to the city’s preset ceremonial rotation.
Hodge and Dale both say Calexico has worked diligently over the past couple of years to repair city finances and rebuild its reputation through transparency and fiduciary responsibility.
“I personally like David (Romero), but he’s alleged of doing wrong. For me, just the allegations alone upset me, disturb me … People should not generalize from these individuals that all City Council members, or employees are corrupt,” Hodge said. “These two individuals are accused of abhorrent criminal behavior.”
Council members Rosie Fernandez, Lewis Pacheco and Morris Reisen were all contacted to comment for this story. Fernandez wouldn’t comment, citing the city attorney’s advice, and Pacheco could not immediately be reached.
Although Reisen initially said he was advised not to say anything by City Attorney Carlos Campos, he added, “This is the tip of the iceberg.”
“A lot of things are going to happen, and everything’s going to come out once they do an investigation,” Reisen said May 22. He wouldn’t comment further when pressed.
Imperial County District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who was leaving the Calexico council to take a seat on the county Board of Supervisors as Romero was settling in to office, crossed paths with Romero for one or two council meetings in late 2018/early 2019.
He called the allegations disappointing and “another black eye for Calexico.”
Escobar said such incidents give the public more fuel for the fire with talk of “only in Calexico.”
Eyeing Cannabis, Other Romero-backed Items
Dale acknowledged in his prepared statement that the city would be looking at its processes and procedures regarding the permitting of cannabis-related businesses.
With one retail storefront operating, two delivery-only services open and a testing lab doing business in downtown Calexico, Dale doesn’t think any internal investigation should affect the ongoing businesses.
However, he said one of the first things he plans to do May 26 is to figure out how the city will determine what the weaknesses or shortcomings are in the process.
“I think we should check into everything. Not just stop at cannabis but look at everything in the most transparent way. We are all heartbroken and disappointed,” Dale said.
“He (Romero) was involved in a lot of things,” the city manager added. “We need to see what was pushed and what was not pushed (by Romero).”
Hodge said he doesn’t want to see the existing cannabis businesses affected, either, but he would like to see all movement on the unopened but permitted cannabis operations stalled while an internal probe is done.
“Obviously there has to be holes in (the process) that allows for corruption,” Hodge said.
Dale, who has been with the city in some form while the permitting process was developed for cannabis, said “nothing sticks out” that shows him how the process could easily be corrupted.
With 13 retail storefront permits on the books, the permits were all approved as they came up. After the initial five were approved, city staff, the planning commission and the council approved additional permits as they were needed, Dale said. Also, caps have never been reached on some of the other types of permits, like cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution.
“It’s going to take some forensic accounting to look into it,” Dale said.
As a member of the city’s cannabis subcommittee with Reisen, Hodge agreed, “We, need to re-examine (the process), yes.”
Hodge and Dale are most troubled by Romero’s assertion that there are city staffers involved in permitting that Romero claimed he could exert influence over, according to allegations in the federal charging document.
That is one of the worst statements in the entire document, Dale said.
More About Romero and Suarez
Romero, age 36, was born in Mexicali and moved to Calexico with his parents when he was around 5 years old, he said in a short video profile from 2018, when he was running for Calexico City Council. He has long been known in the community, as has his family, which owns a carpet-cleaning business.
A 2002 Calexico High School graduate, Romero is married with two children. He attended Dool Elementary School and De Anza Middle School. It’s not clear where he is presently employed, but Romero was an insurance salesman at one point, a city official said.
Recently, he identified himself as a sales adviser for Fergor Dental/SMART DentALL in Mexicali on his public Facebook page. Romero appears on promotional photos for SMART DentALL on his Facebook and Instagram social media pages, which were open to the public and not set to private at the time of publication of this story.
Romero is a U.S. Army veteran who arrived in Kuwait when he was 19 years old and took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, “when it first got real,” he told Jose Alejos on a Sept. 15, 2018, episode of Alejos’ “Que Pasa Calexico” podcast when Romero was running for office.
“Excited now to be one of those contributing adults to the town,” Romero told Alejos he was a member of the same city Economic Development/Financial Advisory Commission that he would later appoint co-defendant Suarez to.
Romero, in 2018, was former Calexico City Council Member Armando “Mandy” Real’s appointee to the commission. Romero held the position of secretary.
Ironically (or perhaps not), during the “Que Pasa Calexico” podcast, Bruno Suarez submitted a question online for Romero to answer during the interview regarding revitalizing downtown Calexico.
For about five years, Romero has been a regular volunteer with CEDES IV at Brown Bag Coalition’s nightly feedings of the homeless in Calexico, Maribel Padilla said. She added CEDES IV feeds about once a month.
Padilla, who said she doesn’t consider Romero a good friend or anything, said she was surprised to see him show up to feed the homeless the night of May 21, just a few hours after his arraignment as news broke around town about the allegations.
“I was disappointed obviously in anything that makes us look like idiots,” Padilla said of the news about Romero, citing the often-repeated “only in Calexico” insult. However, Padilla said she was more concerned that someone was there to feed the homeless, so Romero was welcomed.
In the 2018 interview, Romero talked about what it meant to be an honest politician and an engaged, concerned citizen.
“I want people when they see me to say, ‘There’s the politician who’s trying to do the right thing’ … I am a politician, but I want to give a good name to politicians. You hear, ‘Oh, he’s corrupt,’ ‘no, he’s shady’ … I want to hear them say, ‘No, he’s good, he’s squared away.’ That’s what I want to bring back to Calexico,” Romero told Alejos in the interview.
Romero also spoke about cannabis, which in fall 2018, was still in the formative stages in Calexico.
“In the beginning I was like, ‘Ugh, cannabis.’ Obviously growing up, they tell you cannabis is bad, you know, it’s taboo, it’s for marijuanos. But once you really start to educate yourself on the benefits of cannabis … I think it’s a great idea,” he told Alejos.
“What Calexico has to do with cannabis is be a little bit more transparent with how they handle their financials with their budgets and stuff like that,” Romero said in 2018.
Suarez is a bit more of a mystery. People know him, but in a more general way. Padilla has seen him around the Brown Bag feedings often, as he has identified himself as a friend of Romero’s and as a member of CEDES IV, she said.
The 28-year-old is believed to be a graduate of Calexico High, and while his city of residence is listed as Calexico in the U.S. Attorney’s press release, Dale said he resigned from the economic development commission in late April citing “residency issues”; he was reportedly moving to Mexicali, or had already done so.
As of May 22, he had no active social media presence this newspaper could find, but his photo was found twice on David Romero’s public Instagram feed. First, in a photo of Romero alongside all of his commission appointees, and second, in a promotional photo for SMARTDentALL, where it appeared he is also an employee.
In the federal charging document, Suarez is referred to as a relative of Romero’s. It also says he was the manager of a consulting firm created to filter the bribe money, according to the allegations in the charging document. Suarez’s name does not appear on the California Secretary of State’s website under RS Global Solutions LLC, which shows the limited liability company registration was cancelled. The company registered with the state March 4, 2019, and last filed a statement May 27, 2019.