Moreno Valley FilAms downplay bribery case involving former councilman

Parishioners at the St. Christopher Parish on Cottonwood Avenue in Moreno Valley were either not aware of the bribery or wouldn't want to talk about it. The parish priest here is Filipino. TFLA photo

Parishioners at the St. Christopher Parish on Cottonwood Avenue were either not aware of the bribery or wouldn’t want to talk about it. The parish priest here is Filipino. TFLA photo

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

Moreno Valley is an incorporated city 60 miles South of Los Angeles, usually referred to as “cow town” by city slickers where one only stops for gas on the way to the wine country of Temecula or any of the glitzy Indian casinos on I-15.

On Wednesday, December 4, the erstwhile sleepy town nicknamed “MoVal” hugged the news when the city’s former councilman, Philippine-born Marcelo Co pleaded guilty to a federal charge of taking a $2.3M bribe from an undercover FBI operation in January of this year, in exchange for favorable support in city council land-use votes. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office reported that the bribe is the largest-ever accepted by a U.S. public official in an undercover operation.

Former Councilman Marcelo Co

Former Councilman Marcelo Co

According to city demographics, Filipinos make up more than 2 percent of MoVal that has a total population of 192,946. For decades thousands from this group have migrated to the city possibly attracted by a low key lifestyle, low-cost housing closer to the second most populous concentration of Filipino Americans in the state, San Diego (approximately 200,000).

A longtime resident, Bob Basso said “there is a military base between Riverside and Moreno Valley, the March Air Reserve Base, that hosts a big number of Filipino families which could explain their significant presence in and around Moreno.”

A mediator by profession, Basso had seen their growth from when he first arrived in the area some 35 years. “Filipino Americans have merged well with the rest of the different groups in the community in all areas of developments – business, politics, church, social, sports,” he said.

“Our city is very diverse but the Filipino demographic is quite obvious along Allesandro and in one church, St. Christopher Catholic Church,” said Basso, who traces his heritage from Mexico.

The current pastor of the church is Filipino, Father Joven Junio. The church’s website reflected that a religious community, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, Ina Ng Pag-asa (Mother of Hope) Province, Philippines, took over the administration of the church on October 1, 1994.

What do the Filipino American residents of the city think of this news?

“Wala po namang masyadong impact among Filipinos here in Moreno Valley, at hindi po namin pinag-uusapan nang matagalan, kahit na ng mga Pilipino sa community.” (There’s not much impact among Filipinos here in Moreno Valley, we don’t even dwell on it even within the local community). This was the reaction of one business owner on Allesandro Street. “Iyon nga si Napoles hindi namin pinaguusapan dito, di lalo na si Marcelo Co,” the female responder said (We don’t even talk about Napoles here, what’s more with Marcelo Co). She declined to be identified.

There’s half a dozen visible Filipino restaurants and markets concentrated on Allesandro, a quiet neighborhood surrounded by empty land across a small enclave of stores. These businesses include Fil-Am Enterprises, P.I. Market, Banig Restaurant, Red Ribbon, Asian Imports and P.I Grill, among other establishments.

When we stopped by one of these shops, we were surprised by the uncanny reaction from his compatriots. Only one responded to questions and with a request for anonymity. It felt like bringing out in the open a well-kept family secret.

This author made phone calls to a former Filipino association president and several Filipino restaurants, an insurance agent, a beauty salon owner but was either unavailable or unwilling to make a comment on the case.

One responder said she became aware of the Marcelo Co case when they saw him on the local Channel 9 news and recognized him because he was a frequent customer in their restaurant.

“When our local channels broadcast this news we were disappointed that such terrible news would put our little city in the map, “said Basso. He said he doesn’t think the news reflected on Co’s heritage; it’s just a bad act by someone who was not smart enough to foresee that such malfeasance doesn’t go unpunished.”

On one Sunday in November after Co was accused with bribery, church goers whom this author talked to in St. Christopher’s were evasive when asked about the councilman.

The city is governed by a council-manager government. It is divided into five districts, and residents of each district elect a representative. The council chooses two of its own members to serve as Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem. Co had served as Mayor Pro tem, a position that acts as mayor in his/her absence.

Co agreed Wednesday to plead guilty to one federal bribery count and one federal count of filing a false corporate tax return, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced. Earlier in August, Co resigned from the City Council upon his arrest to face charges for allegedly defrauding the government for illegal home health expenses for his mother.
The former councilman already faced up to 13 years in prison on the bribery charges, but if convicted of the welfare fraud charges, he could face up to six years in prison, according to the Press-Enterprise.
“My friends and I drive by Moreno on our way either to Morongo Casino or Harrah’s,” said Evangeline Rodriguez, an interior designer and photographer from San Fernando Valley. “It’s unfortunate that a kababayan got caught in an illegal scheme; that’s a sad commentary about Filipinos in mainstream politics, even though he doesn’t represent us all,” she continued.

A review of bloggers on Co’s case did not produce a whole lot of comments except for two who wanted to find out his political affiliation – Is he a Democrat or a Republican. Moreno is very red (Republican), said one blogger; “so I’ll not be surprised if he is a Republican.”

An earlier version of this story appeared in the November 12th issue of, a content partner of TheFilAmLA.

Filipino businesses along Alessandro Blvd. TFLA photo

Filipino businesses along Alessandro Blvd. TFLA photo

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