The former mayor of South El Monte was sentenced Wednesday to a year in federal prison for accepting at least $45,000 in bribes from a city contractor.
Luis Aguinaga, 49, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Fernando Olguin to serve a year of home detention with electronic monitoring and complete 3,000 hours of community service. He must also pay $12,000 in fines and restitution.
The case bolsters societal fears "that access to government is only open to those who can pay for it," Olguin said.
Aguinaga admitted in a plea agreement that he took regular cash payments from 2005 to 2012, often in a City Hall bathroom. The long-running corruption scheme involved an unnamed contractor who provided construction and engineering services to the city under a regularly renewing contract with South El Monte.
"He took bribe money, he took it in cash--and he used it for his own benefit," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Pinkel told the court. “You can't be taking cash bribes when you are a politician.''
Aguinaga, who was elected in 2003 to the South El Monte City Council resigned as mayor in August and pleaded guilty the following month in Los Angeles federal court.
He told investigators he took payoffs from the contractor every two to three weeks, in increments up to $2,000, shortly after the builder was paid by the city. If the contractor failed to pay Aguinaga as expected, the then-mayor would call and remind him, prosecutors said.
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"This is a good man who came into a difficult circumstance,'' defense attorney Peter Johnson said in his argument for a probationary sentence. A period of community service would be "so much better than having him in a jail cell playing cards," Johnson said.
Pinkel made a case for a nearly four-year prison sentence, telling the judge that Aguinaga was "just another dirty politician trying to make money from his position."
She said the former mayor, a South El Monte native, "was motivated by greed and the desire for adulation from his constituents." About three dozen of Aguinaga's supporters attended the hearing.
In a halting, tearful statement, the defendant apologized, telling the judge he was sorry for "putting my family through this ridicule."
"My parents always taught me to do the right thing and always help people," he said.
Aguinaga was ordered to self-surrender to begin serving his prison sentence on or before June 30.
In a letter to the judge, Aguinaga asked for a non-custodial sentence, saying he had allowed his "integrity to be compromised'' as a result of pressure to contribute to community organizations.
Pinkel countered in her papers that Aguinaga "epitomizes both the best and the worst in our society." Despite limited education, the former mayor "achieved the American dream and a relatively high-level of success.'' However, in taking bribes, Aguinaga made governmental access available "for those who can pay for it," Pinkel wrote.
In explaining why he decided on a relatively lenient sentence, Olguin said that Aguinaga had pleaded guilty early, saving the government the time and expense of having to obtain an indictment from a grand jury. The judge also said the defendant, at the time of the offense, was drinking too much and had just gone through a divorce.