Hanford mayor, ex-councilman deny allegedly accepting cash bribes

This article was updated 2/5/21 at 12:50pm

Mayor Francisco Ramirez and Councilmember Art Brieno allegedly solicited and received $800 in cash bribes from local businessman Richard Aguilar. The alleged bribes happened last year when Aguilar’s auto repair shop was facing closure by the city.

During a July 7, 2020 hearing Brieno and Ramirez were successful in convincing fellow council members to give Aguilar more time to correct his repair shop’s violations. Hanford City Community Development Director Darlene Mata and her staff were attempting to shut down the shop for various regulation violations.

According to a complaint filed with the State Department of Justice, “On July 7, 2020 and July 8, 2020, we allege City of Hanford Mayor Francisco Ramirez and City of Hanford Councilman Art Brieno demanded and received bribes of $400.00 each from Hanford resident and businessman Richard Aguilar…,” the complaint said.

A reliable unnamed source delivered a copy of the complaint to Hanford-Lemoore Future.

“To protect its integrity, our office cannot comment on potential or ongoing investigations, including the complaints that we receive,” said the state Attorney General’s press office in a January 28 email to this newspaper.


Ramirez, Brieno, Morrow deny taking bribes

Brieno denied receiving any bribes from Aguilar, owner of the automotive repair shop at 330 East 7th Street. Brieno said he did have lunches with Aguilar at Colima’s Restaurant next to Aguilar’s shop. He said Aguilar paid for the lunches.

Ramirez also denied that he asked for or took a bribe from Aguilar. He categorically denied all the allegations against him in the complaint.

He did confirm that there was one lunch at Colima Restaurant. The topic of the discussion with Aguilar was resolving his problems with the city. Ramirez first said he paid for his own lunch. He then called the reporter back and said if Aguilar paid, it was less than $10.

Ramirez said he was willing to take a lie detector test with whoever is making these accusations. He called the charges against him “sad” and “a joke.”

Then council candidate Kalish Morrow (District B) also met during the summer of 2020 with Brieno, Ramirez, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Cheyenne Strawn, and Aguilar multiple times for lunch at Colima to plot strategy, according to the complaint.

Strawn said that he and Morrow were putting up her campaign signs downtown and stopped by Colimas for lunch. While there, he said, “Francisco and then Art pulled up separately” and joined them at the small eating area outside due to COVID. Strawn said that Aguilar  also arrived, sat at their table, and discussed the list of violations he received from the city.

“But nothing happened at the lunch,,” said Strawn. Aguilar often goes to Colimas, said Strawn, because his shop is next door.

“Richard always pays everyone’s bill because he keeps a tab at Colimas. But I’m not going to throw away my political career for a bean and cheese burrito and lemonade.”

Morrow, who was later elected to the council, received a $150 campaign contribution from Aguilar at one of the lunches but the contribution was not reported on state Fair Political Practices Form 460 as required by law, according to the complaint.

Morrow said she first met Aguilar when she was campaigning and he did not contribute any money to her election efforts.

Hanford-Lemoore Future spoke to Aguilar twice and he said he was too busy and couldn’t talk and would call the newspaper later. He never did.

In regard to plans to fire the city attorney, Mata and possibly Cifuentez, Morrow said there was “no plan or discussion, no meeting of the minds.”

Morrow’s vote was needed by Ramirez and Brieno as the third vote to terminate the contract of city attorneys LaSalle Grisworld and fire Mata and possibly Cifuentez, according to the state department’s complaint.

The plan was for Ramirez to request Mata’s firing and if Cifuentez didn’t agree, Ramirez would call a special meeting to fire Cifuentez, according to the complaint.

Ramirez said in response that any termination of employment is conducted on a merit basis. Further he said he was not angry with Darlene Mata.


Investigation of Brieno after July 2020 meeting

After the July 2020 city council meeting where Ramirez and Brieno successfully delayed the closure of Aguilar’s auto shop, the Law office of Griswold, LaSalle, Cobb, Dowd & Gin initiated an investigation of Brieno. It is unknown if the investigation was in retaliation for Brieno allegedly wanting to cancel their contract.

Griswold LaSalle Cobb Dowd & Gin’s investigation was completed November 25, 2020 and was handed over to Mata’s lawyer, Rachele Berglund, from the Visalia law firm of Herr Pedersen Berglund.

The investigation alleges that Brieno inappropriately revealed that Mata left work on stress leave and that he “told others Ms. Mata and Mr. Cifuentez were having an affair.”

The report also alleges, “he (Brieno) did not trust a woman to hold the job Ms. Mata held,” and that he said, “a man was better suited for that job, and that he did not know how a woman got that job over a man.”

As a result Mata is seeking $1.25 million in damages.

Berglund stated in a letter to the city, “These events have resulted in intolerable and aggravated working conditions-conditions that Ms. Mata has been forced to endure for over a year. Conditions that have had a significant impact on her health and well-being. Conditions that have impacted her reputation. Conditions that have resulted in feelings of shame and embarrassment.”

Mata’s lawsuit was discussed in a special city council meeting on January 19. As a result, Brieno abruptly resigned the following Tuesday during a continuation of that meeting.

Brieno told the Valley Voice that he didn’t have the money to fight a lawsuit and didn’t have the votes on the council to prevent it.

But in an unexpected twist, Brieno had a change of heart and is now considering a lawsuit against Hanford.

In the Hanford City Council agenda packet for a special meeting being held today February 5 it states, “On February 3, 2021, a threat of litigation against the City of Hanford (City) was made to City Attorney Ty Mizote during a phone conversation with attorneys for Arthur Brieno. Mr. Brieno’s attorneys allege that the City caused Mr. Brieno to suffer damages.”

In another twist concerning Brieno’s now vacant council seat, according to multiple supporters who spoke at Tuesday’s regular city council meeting (2/2/21,) Strawn is a candidate to fill Brieno’s term on the council. Strawn is a subject of the complaint, ran for city council in 2018 and is Brieno’s current roommate.

Additional allegations in the State Department of Justice’s complaint regarding the alleged bribes further detail Ramirez and Brieno’s motivation to have Mata fired and will be discussed in a follow up article in the Hanford-Lemoore Future after further investigation.

The allegations regarding bribery, if verified, are sure to rock the city already under duress from the Brieno resignation and the financial and emotional fallout from the pandemic.

A version of this story is Copyrighted 2021 Hanford-Lemoore Future by Mark Pratter, Reprinted with permission of Hanford-Lemoore Future. Catherine Doe contributed to this article

23 thoughts on “Hanford mayor, ex-councilman deny allegedly accepting cash bribes

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  1. Mara* needs to be fired. There is evidence to these allegations. The phony newspaper needs to state the name of the source. otherwise it’s not reliable!!

  2. 400 dollars a piece lmao. No elected official would risk the medical benefits for 400 dollars!

  3. I think someone is trying to get a payday!!!! It doesn’t add up. 400.00 isn’t nothing to risk your reputation @ position!!!!

    • EXACTLY! That’s why Community Development Director is suing for over a million dollars. Easy to see who is looking for a quick payday

  4. This is a joke. Mata’s record speaks for itself. Since I’ve been involved in city council meetings, she lacks professionalism in her position. She has disrespected council on record, as well as the public. Perhaps she knew that she was in jeopardy of losing her job. This was the Hail Mary.

    • Because the person who is making the allegations and who reported the allegation is an old white BIGOT from Armona. His name is James Athey.

  5. Mata is a horrible human being,she denied me a cannabis dispensary
    And im a local business owner from hanford for many years.instead she possibly took a cash bribe and gave it to
    Out of state companies.her and the chief of police sever need to be investigated and will .
    They are both crooks and need to be eliminated out of their positions

  6. I have worked alongside Darlene Mata for many years. These people cannot handle that she is an intelligent women with confidence. Add to it that she is a Hispanic women and these guys are exhibiting their ancient machismo attitude. It’s too bad their actions will hurt future prosperity for Hanford. Who will want to invest in a city with such corrupt city representation.

    • BOTH RAMIREZ AND BRIENO ARE HISPANIC! She is condescending and hasn’t done anything to help the city of HANFORD

  7. Working alongside a horrible,unreliable,un fair person like mata tells me you are a brown noser and my law firms dont hear that .the proof is in the pudding,maya,the chief of police and many more are under state and federal
    Investigation led by my our private
    Mata was already fired from another city before bringing her corrupt nature to Hanford. She must be eliminated off her
    City position and i will bring attorneys from LOS ANGELES
    To battle our little hanford jokester city attorneys.

  8. I cannot believe what I have just read. Since when is it a crime for council members to help a business that has helped so many people in Hanford stay afloat. This article is very damaging for their reputation. And why would Aguilar bribe council members when it’s up to City planning to determine whether the business must close or remain open. This is clearly a witch Hunt. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines.

  9. Years ago journalists who valued their trade would investigate and find proof of allegations. This whole article reads as muckraking gossip mongering. It just doesn’t make sense for council members to take small bribes. And the city council has no say over the city planners job. So the question is what’s really going on here?

  10. I have personal experience with this council man, mayor / ex mayor Mr Ramirez. He’s a middle man slum lord whom denies tenants basic necessities such as heat and decent rent for a local real estate doctor of sorts. If he makes tenants pay for their own repairs or threatens them with eviction if not paid… Latino or not he’s a piece of garbage in my book. Throw him out with the rest of the trash!

  11. I’m not sure if a meeting with a free lunch would be considered a huge bribe considering all the time and support of the Councilmen.
    People would say the same about Mr. Ramirez when he would frequent and receive free food while promoting and supporting them. How else would he be able to support them without knowing is there food is good or not? Furthermore since he has been previously fined it’s hard to imagine him being so reckless.

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