07:25 AM PDT on Wednesday, October 6, 2010
By JOHN ASBURY
LOS ANGELES – Former Soboba Indian Tribal Chairman Robert “Bobby” Salgado admitted Tuesday that he accepted nearly $875,000 in bribes from vendors who had contracts with the tribe and its Soboba casino.
In exchange for his admission, prosecutors dismissed 34 of 36 felony counts against Salgado. The morning his trial was scheduled to begin, he pleaded guilty to the remaining two charges of bribery and filing a false tax return. He faces up to 13 years in prison, although prosecutors say they will likely seek seven to nine years.
Salgado, 68, was indicted last year after another tribal member told authorities he had been soliciting bribes. Four vendors accused of paying bribes have pleaded guilty and one other is awaiting trial.
Over the past decade, the Soboba tribe has poured tens of millions of dollars into capital improvements on its reservation and casino near San Jacinto, and into expanding its real estate holdings, including the $12.5 million purchase of the Country Club at Soboba Springs.
According to prosecutors, Salgado — a powerful, politically connected figure who had been tribal chairman on and off since 1976 — took advantage of that situation, forcing vendors to bribe him in exchange for contracts and skimming money off of real estate commissions. The bribes dated at least to 1997, court documents show.
“As chairman, (Salgado) exercised tremendous influence over the tribe’s affairs. The tribal council entered into contracts on behalf of the tribe, including land purchases and the construction of facilities on the reservation,” a trial brief states.
No other tribal members were charged in the case.
Salgado was placed on leave after he was indicted, and he resigned before the tribal elections last spring. Scott Cozart was elected tribal chairman in April.
“This case represents the actions of an individual, and not those of the Tribe nor any other member of the Tribal Council,” said a statement issued by the tribe late Tuesday. “Immediately upon learning of the charges, the Tribal Council took action to remove the accused from its government, and address any and all possible concerns as they may relate to the Tribe’s responsibilities to its membership and any outside agency.”
Tuesday, outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles, Salgado, standing with a cane, appeared with his sister, Raina. Salgado declined to comment, directing questions to his attorney, who had just driven away and could not be reached by phone.
PATH OF BRIBES
Prosecutors began investigating Salgado when a former Soboba tribal council member, Michael Castello, told them that he learned from a vendor that Salgado was soliciting bribes, according to a trial brief that summarizes the case. Castello contacted authorities and told them of the financial dealings and how the tribe was governed.
Salgado admitted to taking $874,995 in bribes from five vendors, and not reporting it to the Internal Revenue Service. Much of the money went to pay Salgado’s credit card bills.
The five vendors were also charged with crimes including offering bribes, conspiracy and tax fraud.
John Culton, a Hemet real estate broker who helped the band acquire properties including the country club, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for bribing Salgado with $486,152. According to court documents, Culton paid Salgado a share of his real estate commissions in order to maintain business with the tribe.
Armen Zennedjian pleaded guilty to bribing Salgado with $184,000 to receive contracts to provide concessions and other services at the Soboba Casino. Zennedjian was described as Salgado’s “right hand man” who helped collect bribes for Salgado and for himself, according to the trial brief.
In July 2009, Zennedjian helped the FBI gather evidence against Salgado by wearing a wire while making a bribe to Salgado with FBI funds.
A third vendor, Michael Yakovich, admitted paying $89,000 for construction contracts at the Soboba bank from 2005 to 2007.
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