Calif. officials targeted in pot licensing probe

Calif. officials targeted in pot licensing probe

Ruben Vives and Robert J. Lopez


LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury has issued subpoenas seeking information about cash and other payments to public officials and cannabis consultants as part of a criminal investigation into pot licensing in Baldwin Park and nearby cities, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Federal authorities, including agents from the FBI and Internal Revenue Service, have been interviewing witnesses and are seeking a wide range of records regarding Baldwin Park city officials who approved cannabis licenses and consultants who helped businesses obtain the permits, according to interviews and a copy of a grand jury subpoena.

Agents are also probing connections between Baldwin Park businesses and consultants who have obtained or sought cannabis licenses in other cities, including Montebello and El Monte, according to the subpoena and interviews.

The subpoenas follow a series of scandals in Baldwin Park, a 6.8-square-mile city 23 miles east of Los Angeles, in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley.

Late last year, The Times reported that FBI agents had served search warrants at the city attorney’s office and the homes of two officials in other cities as part of an investigation into cannabis licensing and allegations that Baldwin Park officials had received illegal payments from businesses seeking permits.

A former Baldwin Park City Council member, who was an early champion of legalizing cannabis, pleaded guilty in a separate federal case after admitting to taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from a police officer to vote for a police union contract, according to federal court records that were unsealed earlier this year. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in ongoing public corruption investigations.

And a state audit last year found that the city had been poorly managed and flagged deficiencies in its accounting practices. The audit also raised concerns about wasteful spending, including an engineering project that was never finished but cost taxpayers more than $500,000.

The commercial cannabis licensing program, which was approved by the City Council in 2017, has been mired in allegations of bribery, conflict of interest and bias.

In a sworn declaration filed last year in an unrelated lawsuit, former Baldwin Park Police Lt. Christopher Kuberry, who was in charge of inspecting cannabis businesses, said three operators had complained to him about questionable practices in the city and ‘having to pay $250,000 in a brown paper bag to city officials.’

The scope of the subpoenas includes requests for records of meetings, emails and payments to any city cannabis consultants and Baldwin Park council members, as well as any records connected to cannabis consultants or cannabis licensing in cities outside of Baldwin Park.

FBI agents have asked about cannabis consultants in Baldwin Park who assisted applicants in El Monte and Montebello, according to sources interviewed by federal agents. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to publicly discuss the investigation.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the subpoenas but said the investigation is ongoing.

The grand jury subpoena also seeks records regarding Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya. In October 2020, FBI agents searched Tafoya’s downtown Los Angeles office, as well as the homes of Isaac Galvan, a member of the Compton City Council, and Gabriel Chavez, who was a San Bernardino County planning commissioner.

Chavez declined to comment; Galvan could not be reached for comment.

Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya at a Baldwin Park city council meeting on Dec. 13, 2017, in California. FBI agents searched Tafoya’s downtown Los Angeles office as part of a pot licensing investigation. 

Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/TNS