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Former Santa Cruz County asssessor pleads guilty to conspiracy, bribery

Former Santa Cruz County Assessor Felipe Fuentes pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud after he accepted thousands of dollars in cash, as well as the use of a 17-acre ranch parcel, in exchange for manipulating the value of land-holdings in the county.

In a federal court in Tucson Friday, as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, the 62-year-old Fuentes told U.S. District Judge Leslie A. Bowman that he was part of a conspiracy to change the value of the land. Flores admitted that in exchange he received at least $20,000, and he enjoyed "free-use" of a 17-acre ranch parcel, owned by a man identified in court records only as Person A. Another man, identified only as Person B in Fuentes' plea agreement, helped to facilitate the conspiracy.

The Nogales International reported that Fuentes was involved with Dino Panousopoulos—the local property owner—and Luis Manuel Flores, a consultant who was indicted by a federal grand jury last Wednesday. Flores was arrested on Jan. 27, the Nogales International reported.

Flores originally faced a single count of conspiracy, but on Wednesday, a grand jury indicted him on seven counts, including conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, bribery, and making false statements. Panousopoulos has not been charged in the case, according to a search of federal court records.

In his plea agreement, Fuentes said he worked with Person A as specific "opportunities arose," to reduce property-tax valuations for him, and lessen his tax liability.

Fuentes was elected in 1998, and served as the county assessor for decades. However, prosecutors said that from 2007 through October 2019, he conspired to "devise a scheme to defraud and to deprive Santa Cruz County," of his "honest services" as the county's assessor.

Fuentes faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He will be sentenced in August.

In his plea agreement, Fuentes said that in 2018, he reduced the value of a "large" parcel from approximately $2 million to $1.4 million. In 2019, Fuentes altered the valuation of "numerous undeveloped town-home lots" from around $14,000 per lot to approximately $2,500 per lot, he said. Fuentes added that he used his elected office to help Person A with "language to include in petitions appealing property-tax valuations so his appeals would be successful," and he contacted other local government officials to help speed up approvals on multiple projects.

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According to the indictment against Flores, he allegedly worked with Fuentes to inflate the value of the Preston Mobile Home Park before it was sold to the Arizona Department of Transportation as part of the widening of Interstate 19, changing the property into a "commercial property." The indictment states that Flores and Fuentes spoke on the phone on June 21, 2019 and discussed altering the property's valuation indirectly.

During the conversation, Fuentes allegedly told Flores he had a "dilemma" and then asked for help to attend his wife's college graduation ceremony in Minnesota. Fuentes later said he received $1,500 for his trip, as well as another $1,000 in cash concealed in a folded newspaper before the trip in August 2019.

In the documents submitted against Flores, federal officials reference recordings of conversations between Flores and Fuentes, as well as a conversation between Flores and the Person A. There is also a video, images of which were included in the indictment, allegedly showing part of a conversation between Fuentes and Flores.

"Property taxes pay for critical local government services that support our communities," said United States Attorney Gary Restaino. "Fuentes abused the public trust when he reduced the assessed value of property, and by doing so diverted money away from Santa Cruz County in order to serve his own self-interest."

"The citizens of Arizona deserve a government free of corruption. The FBI will not tolerate those who abuse their positions of authority and is committed to rooting out public corruption and civil rights violations at all levels," said Sean Kaul, special agent in charge of the FBI Phoenix Field Office. "The FBI continues to investigate this case and encourages the public to come forward if they have any information."

The FBI's Southern Arizona Corruption Task Force investigated the case, said Esther Winne, a Justice Department spokeswoman. The Financial Crimes and Public Corruption section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution, she said.

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U.S. District Courthouse in Tucson.