Baldwin Park’s former city attorney “knowingly and intentionally” assisted in a bribery and wire fraud scheme that funneled $70,000 in illicit payoffs to former Councilman Ricardo Pacheco to secure his vote on a cannabis permit, according to federal authorities.
The new allegations against Robert Tafoya became public last week following the federal grand jury indictment of Tafoya’s longtime friend and alleged co-conspirator, former Compton Councilman Isaac Galvan.
Tafoya has not been charged and is only identified as “Person 1,” an individual described in the indictment as “the city attorney for Baldwin Park from in or around December 2013 until October 2022.” Court filings, however, refer to Person 1 as a “co-conspirator” and suggest he assisted in at least two instances in which Pacheco sold his vote.
Tafoya resigned as city attorney that same month after the Southern California News Group published details about other allegations against him contained in the unsealed plea agreements of Pacheco, a councilman from 1997 to 2020, and Gabriel Chavez, a former San Bernardino County planning commissioner who served as Pacheco’s middleman in the bribery scheme.
Pacheco and Chavez each pleaded guilty to a single count of bribery in 2020 and 2022. In total, authorities seized $302,900 in bribes collected by Pacheco.
Their plea agreements, signed under penalty of perjury, allege Galvan, Tafoya and others — including Commerce City Manager Edgar Cisneros — participated in the corruption at various points. The federal investigation reportedly crosses into multiple cities, including Baldwin Park, Montebello, El Monte and Commerce.
Galvan and Tafoya allegedly were working together to secure a marijuana license to operate in Cisneros’ city.
A list of related cases filed alongside Galvan’s indictment indicate at least one other case — filed within the past year and currently under seal — is pending.
Tafoya’s attorney, Mark Werksman, did not respond to requests for comment. He previously denied that Tafoya had any knowledge or involvement in Pacheco’s dealings.
“Robert Tafoya is and always has been an honest, ethical attorney that has acted legally and in the best interest of the City of Baldwin Park,” Werksman said in 2022. “A bunch of corrupt politicians, who are cooperating in order to get lenient sentences, shouldn’t be believed at all.”
Asked about the allegations against Tafoya specifically, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to “comment as to the identity of Person 1 in the indictment.”
Pleaded not guilty
Special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigations arrested Galvan, 36, of Compton, and Yichang Bai, 50, of Arcadia, the owner and operator of a cannabis grower that obtained permit in Baldwin Park, in the early morning of Monday, Sept. 18. Both were charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery and eight counts of wire fraud. The two men pleaded not guilty to all counts during an arraignment that same day, according to court records.
The earlier plea agreements signed by Pacheco and Chavez alleged Tafoya set the various bribery schemes in motion.
Prosecutors believe Tafoya approached Pacheco prior to the City Council’s approval of its first cannabis cultivation ordinance in August 2017 and recommended that he support bringing cannabis to the city because Pacheco could “personally profit,” according to an exhibit attached to Pacheco’s plea agreement.
“Person 1 explained that defendant should find an individual he trusted who would not talk (the ‘intermediary’), instruct the intermediary to represent himself as a ‘consultant’ to companies seeking Cultivation Development Agreements, and promise to deliver a development agreement to the company in exchange for a $150,000 fee,” federal prosecutors wrote in the exhibit.
Money for votes
A week before the vote, Galvan — who helped Tafoya’s wife land a job at Compton City Hall — gave a $10,000 check with a blank payee line to Pacheco “to secure Pacheco’s support for a future consulting client’s marijuana permit,” according to the indictment and a news release. Pacheco passed the check off to a real estate agent friend who deposited it, then gave $6,400 in cash back to him.
The check came from a consulting company that Tafoya helped Galvan form, prosecutors said.
The following month, Tafoya allegedly provided a list of “the names of applicants for marijuana permits” and “the names of individuals associated with those applications” to Galvan.
After Bai’s company, W&F International, paid $40,000 to Galvan’s consulting firm, he arranged a meeting with Bai, his translator and Tafoya at Tafoya’s office to demonstrate the sway he carried. Galvan texted Bai’s translator after the November 2017 meeting: “See I don’t (expletive) around.”
A month later, Tafoya, through a friend, reportedly sent Galvan two “consulting services agreements,” one for Galvan’s company and another for a consulting company run by the friend. The agreement stated that the second consulting company would receive $225,000 once Baldwin Park issued a development agreement to W&F.
Pacheco supported W&F’s application during council votes on June 20 and July 18, 2018.
Bai later collected a $50,000 check and five $10,000 checks from an individual who owed him money and passed them to Galvan, who in turn passed the checks along to Pacheco and Tafoya, prosecutors allege. Tafoya agreed to have friends of a relative cash the five checks in exchange for $6,000 from the total, they allege.
Pacheco similarly had a third party cash the larger check and pay back a portion over the following months. The scheme was designed to “disguise the true source of the payment,” prosecutors said.
The Baldwin Park City Council unanimously supported W&F International’s application to relocate its proposed cultivation site in December 2018.
Meanwhile, Pacheco and Chavez, the planning commissioner, collected more bribes. The two men amassed at least $170,000 through sham consulting agreements — allegedly provided by Tafoya — from other applicants from 2017 to 2019.
Cash buried in backyard
The FBI busted Pacheco through a separate 2018 sting during which he took $37,900 from a Baldwin Park police officer, acting as an FBI informant, in exchange for supporting the police union’s contract. Federal investigators raided his home in response in December 2018 and found $62,900 buried in his backyard.
The following month, Pacheco deposited $20,000 in bribes from Bai into a legal defense fund.
Two years later, the FBI raided Tafoya’s office and the homes of Chavez and Galvan. Chavez later pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in October 2022.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office believes Tafoya was present at five different meetings between Pacheco and Galvan in which Pacheco openly discussed taking bribes.
After raid, agreement rescinded
The day after the 2020 raid on Tafoya, Baldwin Park revoked W&F International’s development agreement.
The company had been operating an illegal grow in Baldwin Park for months without any action from the city until the neighboring El Monte Police Department intervened. Baldwin Park officials at the time said they only inspected “nonoperating” cannabis businesses once a year at most and were unaware of W&F’s activities.
W&F was years behind on the required payments outlined in its development agreement. The company had not completed required improvements to the building, or secured necessary approvals from county health, county fire and the city’s building division.
The El Monte Police Department, acting independently on information obtained in its own cases, had sent detectives to check the exterior of W&F’s Littlejohn Street warehouse roughly a month before the revocation and found obvious signs of a grow, including marijuana leaves discarded in the trash.
Pictures from the raid showed a warehouse filled with marijuana plants. Police seized 15 boxes of marijuana, one rooted plant and security cameras at the time.
They arrested Bai on suspicion of cultivation of marijuana, possession of marijuana for sales and conspiracy, according to a news release.
Lawsuit targets fee collections
David Torres-Siegrist, an attorney representing several cannabis companies in Baldwin Park, is suing the city to try to stop its collection of mitigation fees tied to the cannabis development agreements. Those fees, which are meant to offset the negatives from the industry, weren’t established equally, according to the lawsuit.
Some of the development agreements allowed operators to avoid paying the fees until they received a certificate of occupancy, while others began accruing a balance immediately, putting them millions of dollars in the hole before a single cent could be earned.
Tafoya handled all of the original development agreement negotiations and continued to work on cannabis regulations even after the FBI raided his home. The City Council removed those responsibilities from Tafoya in April 2021 after the Southern California News Group found he had hired an attorney who successfully landed a cannabis permit during an earlier round of applicants.
Galvan served as a consultant for that applicant as well. The attorney in question, Anthony Willoughby II, was the son of Galvan’s personal attorney.
A federal case filed by Torres-Siegrist on behalf of David Ju, a businessman who purchased the development agreement awarded to Willoughby, alleges Tafoya, Galvan, Pacheco and Willoughby II “acted in concert to orchestrate a swindle on an elderly man dying of cancer who poured his life savings into a venture that was destined for failure from the get-go.” The lawsuit alleges the men violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Ju paid $300,000 to buy the cannabis company, Tier One Consulting, and roughly $200,000 of the total went to Galvan, according to the lawsuit. The businessman later learned Willoughby had spent less than $4,000 securing the development agreement and had amassed tens of thousands of dollars in fees that Tafoya allegedly told Ju he needed to cover, the lawsuit states.
Ju estimates he lost at least $900,000 on the deal, according to the lawsuit.
‘Whole process is compromised’
“We’ve been telling the City Council this since 2021,” Torres-Siegrist said in an interview. “The whole process is compromised and at the heart of it is an out-of-control City Attorney’s Office.”
Baldwin Park Mayor Emmanuel Estrada inherited the cannabis mess after winning election in 2020. Since then, the City Council has hired a new city attorney, a new police chief, a new city manager and new code enforcement personnel, he said.
The city is using a reputable third party, HdL Companies, to assist with developing a more equitable system, he said. In the future, Estrada hopes that cannabis operators will only have to pay fees once they’re operational, he said.
The slow movement of the FBI’s case has made it difficult to take action against any of the companies that may have received a development agreement through corruption, he said. While the city knows at least two companies paid bribes based on prior court filings, officials didn’t know the names of any of the companies until W&F was named in last week’s indictment, Estrada said.
“It is very difficult for us to act on any of the contracts, but I would say that the city is working on making sure that moving forward we are holding everyone accountable and putting the right process in place to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “For the most part, the city is moving kind of slow because we don’t want to end up blindsided.”