Demanding money from developer led to Beaumont councilman’s bribery charge, grand jury transcripts show
Beaumont Councilman Mark Orozco last year pressured a development firm for a $15,000 campaign contribution about a week before the City Council considered pro- and anti-growth candidates to fill a vacant council seat, according to grand jury testimony released Monday, June 5.
The 318-page transcript details the case Riverside County prosecutors are pursuing against Orozco, who faces one count of bribery and nine counts of perjury for allegedly falsely and repeatedly listing a loan on campaign finance disclosure forms stemming from a failed 2014 bid for county supervisor.
“I need — I need help. I need — I need money to help retire my prior campaign debt,” Orozco told an official with Pardee homes on Jan 13, 2016, according to grand jury testimony.
Orozco’s indictment was announced May 11. But the grand jury transcript remained sealed until Monday, June 5.
“Mr. Orozco was an individual who has been impacted by greed and power to the point where we will be presenting evidence to you of criminal activity,” Deputy District Attorney Amy Barajas told the 19-member grand jury.
Orozco told a DA investigator he lied on his disclosure forms, Barajas said. Filers swear under penalty of perjury that the information in their forms is true.
Orozco could not be reached for comment Monday. A man who answered his cellphone said Orozco could not come to the phone because he was dealing with a death in the family.
His attorney, David Greenberg, described the transcript as full of “supposition, assumption, speculation, but there is no real evidence” that a crime occurred.
He pointed out that two witnesses gave different accounts of Jan. 13, 2016, meeting at model home where Orozco allegedly solicited a bribe.
“You have three people in the same alleged meeting and two of them describe it completely differently,” Greenberg said.
He added, “There are different ways to fundraise and some people are more aggressive. That doesn’t equal a bribe.”
The first part of the transcript features testimony from Jeff Chambers and Mike Taylor, two executives with homebuilder Pardee Homes, which had development projects in Beaumont.
Chambers and Taylor testified about a meeting they had with Orozco on the early evening of Jan. 13, 2016, to give him a tour of three model homes at Pardee’s 4,200-home Sundance community. At the time, council members were dealing with a vacancy caused by the December 2015 death of Councilman Jeff Fox.
According to Chambers and Taylor, Della Condon, seen as favoring slow growth, and Sean Balingit, considered more open to development, were two candidates being considered by the council to serve the remainder of Fox’s term.
Councilmen Lloyd White and Mike Lara favored Condon while Councilwoman Brenda Knight prefer Balingit, Chambers said, adding Pardee hoped Balingit would get the appointment.
“Would Mr. Lara have gone either way in your observations if the candidate has gotten the support of two other councilmen?” Chambers was asked.
“I believe so,” he said.
“So was Mr. Orozco then kind of the deciding factor of how the vote would go …?”
‘It scared me’
At that point, Irvine-based Pardee Homes was in a difficult spot with Beaumont.
The company, Chambers said, was owed about $25 million from the city for streets, sidewalks, drainage channels and other public works associated with two large developments, Sundance and the 1,300-home Tournament Hills projects.
The city was supposed to issue municipal bonds to pay for the improvements but was still analyzing the value of the work done.
Meanwhile, authorities were then investigating former City Manager Alan Kapanicas and other city officials for signing off payments from previous bond accounts to companies they owned. Kapanicas and six other former Beaumont officials are now awaiting trial for numerous felony charges, including misuse of bond funds, in a separate city corruption case.
“It was important that we were able to sell the bonds and have the money returned to us,” Chambers told the grand jury. “And we made that clear to – we discussed that with Mr. Orozco.”
Orozco “was not really all that interested” in Pardee’s problem, saying the company had to continue working with the city, Chambers said.
But then, “(Orozco) became belligerent at the meeting and said that we were not supporting him adequately,” Chambers said. “He started talking with a lot of vulgar words and raising his voice and saying that he needed our support, he needed – he needed money to help retire his campaign debt.”
Orozco said he needed $15,000 to retire his debt, Chambers said. The bribery allegation is dated Jan. 13, the same date Chambers and Taylor said they met with Orozco.
“Mr. Orozco said ‘I know you guys want Sean Balingit. I can help (make) that happen. I need your support, and I can support you,’” Chambers quoted Orozco as saying.
“It scared me,” Chambers added. “It seemed like he was saying if you get me the $15,000, I will vote for your guy.”
Taylor, who is Chambers’ boss, didn’t recall Orozco using profanity, although he said he, Chambers and Orozco were not all in the same room the whole time of the tour.
“Did (Orozco) tell you that, if you supported him financially, he would vote for Sean?” Taylor was asked.
“He never told me that,” Taylor replied. But in earlier testimony, Taylor said: “Over the course of that meeting, I believe he said something about him having campaign debt from his previous elections … his comment to me was that he had campaign debt of approximately $15,000.”
While it’s not unusual for Pardee to give elected officials tours of projects, “having the subject come around to asking for financial support and just in the timing that it was being asked made us uncomfortable,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he told Orozco any donation request would have to be made in writing and cleared by Pardee’s corporate office.
Chambers and Taylor testified about an email they received the day after the meeting from Mitch Star, an associate of Orozco, on behalf of a pro-Orozco political action committee. That email mentioned another dollar total.
A letter attached to the email asked for a $15,000 contribution to help retire Orozco’s $30,000 debt, Chambers said as he read the letter, which was entered into evidence.
It was followed that Friday, Taylor said, by a voicemail from an Orozco associate, David Weiner, who wanted to pick up the check before the following Tuesday so the PAC could close its books.
Taylor told the jury Pardee had never given that much to a candidate. Further, the Martin Luther King holiday fell on the following Monday, meaning “there was no way we could start the process until next week,” Taylor added.
That Tuesday, the council deadlocked on a replacement for Fox.
Pardee never gave Orozco any money, said Chambers, who described subsequent meetings with Weiner and Orozco and hearing amounts of $30,000 and $60,000 to retire Orozco’s debt.
“After January, every conversation was inappropriate,” Chambers said. “I felt very uncomfortable.”
An active political career:
2008: Mark A. Orozco is elected to the Beaumont school board.
2012: Orozco runs as a Democrat for the state’s 42nd Assembly District but loses to Republican incumbent Brian Nestande, and he relinquishes his school board seat.
2013: Orozco starts his campaign for Riverside County supervisor and states on his campaign finance disclosure form that he loaned $50,000 to his campaign.
June 2014: Orozco loses the supervisor’s race to incumbent Marion Ashley.
November 2014: Orozco is elected to the Beaumont City Council.
May 11, 2017: Orozco is indicted on suspicion of one count of bribery and nine counts of perjury for falsely stating a loan on campaign finance disclosure forms for his failed bid to become a county supervisor.