There is no evidence that Hanford City Council members Francisco Ramirez and Art Brieno accepted bribes from a Hanford business owner, according to an August 5 press release from the Kings County Sheriff’s Office.
The two council members had been accused of accepting bribes in July 2020 from Richard Aguilar, owner of the Richard Aguilar & Sons auto repair shop in Hanford, in a complaint with the California Department of Justice.
The complaint claimed that they “demanded and received bribes of $400 each” from Aguilar after his auto repair shop was facing closure by the city for code violations.
During a July 7, 2020 Hanford City Council Public Hearing Brieno and Ramirez were successful in convincing fellow council members to give Aguilar more time to correct his repair shop’s code violations. Hanford Community Development Director Darlene Mata and her staff were attempting to shut down the auto shop.
Mata has since been on leave from her position for stress related illnesses after filing a more than $1m lawsuit against the city for alleged harassment by Brieno.
Brieno and Ramirez told the Voice that Aguilar contacted them and others to help his business cope with the city’s demands.
“When a resident has a concern, I try to help them deal with it,” said Ramirez.
The KCSO press release stated,
“The business [Aguilar’s auto repair shop] accused of bribery cooperated fully with the investigation to the point of allowing authorities access to their bookkeeping records. Detectives found no evidence of any wrongdoing by the business.
The letter further stated there was a witness to the bribery. Detectives interviewed the witness who stated he never witnessed a bribery take place between the business and the two City Councilmembers.
Francisco Ramirez and Art Brieno provided statements and cooperated during the investigation are not suspected of any wrongdoing by the Sheriff’s Office.”
Ramirez said that a sheriff’s detective came to his house and interviewed him for about a half hour. Ramirez told the detective that he had met with Aguilar a few times to help him resolve his business’ problems with the city.
Ramirez did not know who the witnesses were that detectives interviewed and speculated the sheriff’s department spent about a month and a half on the investigation.
Brieno was interviewed by a sheriff’s detective over the phone, and then had a follow-up phone interview towards the end of the investigation.
The detective asked Brieno if he was aware of the bribery allegations against him.
“I am,” he told the detective. “I find it hilarious. I didn’t have anything to do with bribery.”
“I didn’t need it and Richard didn’t offer it.”
Brieno said that he met with Aguilar about three times, at Denny’s along with one of Aguilar’s employees, at Colima’s restaurant, and at Lacy Park with Aguilar’s wife.
Brieno was not certain what alleged witnesses were interviewed, but speculated it might be Aguilar’s wife and his employee.
“He and his wife were very emotional and upset when we met at Lacy Park before the public hearing. Richard had met with the city manager and thought the city was going to shut him down.”
Brieno said Darrel Pyle was the city manager at the time and tried to reassure Aguilar that Pyle was trying to work with him to keep his business open. Brieno said the pressure on Aguilar to shut down the business because of long standing code violations was coming from Mata.
“I’ve known Richard, not so much as a friend but as a mechanic, and I find him very trustworthy. A lot of people came to the public hearing to support Richard and were upset at the prospect of his business being shut down,” said Brieno.
The sheriff’s investigation was submitted to District Attorney Keith Fagundes’ office June 24 for review.
The Hanford-Lemoore Future has filed a Public Records Act to request a copy of the investigation. Sheriff’s office representatives said the documents should be ready by August 19.
Allegation of Bribery only part of complaint
A copy of the complaint was delivered to the Hanford-Lemoore Future in January of 2021. A reporter from that paper personally spoke to the complainant to confirm the allegations and origin of the document.
The informant says he has received threats and wants to remain anonymous.
Beyond circumstantial evidence, none of the allegations in the complaint against Brieno, Ramirez and other Hanford residents have been proven.
KCSO added in its press release, “As the investigation unfolded, it was discovered no formal complaint had been filed. Rather, an informal letter had been sent to the California Attorney General’s Office and to a local news organization.”
The Valley Voice reported in a February 4, 2021 article that the complaint also alleged unreported campaign donations and a local developer paying for trips for Brieno and Ramirez.
Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson told the Hanford-Lemoore Future that these and other allegations were not investigated because they are possible violations of the state’s Fair Political Practices Act.
There was a 15 month delay between the complaint being filed with the California Department of Justice and the sheriff’s department initiating an investigation.
Robinson told the Hanford-Lemoore Future that he asked Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever or Hanford City Manager Mario Cifuentez to request that the sheriff’s department conduct an investigation. When they did not make a request, Robinson initiated an investigation on his own.
Both Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever and District Attorney Keith Fagundes were aware of the allegations in the complaint, but both said they had not received it.
“I never had any direct information of criminal activity,” said Sever.
Fagundes also said he never received a copy even though the complainant confirmed with the Hanford-Lemoore Future he had personally met with Fagundes in his office and physically handed him the complaint.
A significant delay could be a factor in the findings of the investigation.
“When there is a delay people have a deterioration in memory,” said Sarah Hacker, DA elect. There is a risk, she said, of losing evidence when people do not know that they need to maintain evidence.
She said the new DA administration would put a priority on investigating political corruption. “We don’t want …our cases to fall through the cracks.”