Suspended Mayor To Change Plea As Sweetwater Looks For Missing Money
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SWEETWATER (CBSMiami/El Nuevo Herald) – The attorneys for Sweetwater’s suspended mayor Manny Maroño have filed notice indicating he plans to change his plea to guilty on a single count of conspiracy fraud.
The news comes just hours after his appointed successor confirmed money is missing from the city.
As part of a joint effort, CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald have been investigating questionable connections in the city for months.
“When there’s no organization, there’s room for chaos,” Mayor Jose M. Diaz told CBS4’s Lauren Pastrana Tuesday.
As Maroño prepares to change his plea in federal court November 12th, the police department in the city he used to run is looking for missing money.
“There is money missing,” Sweetwater’s Interim Police Chief Jesse Menocal said. “Whether it be from vehicles towed or evidence money seized. It could be either or.”
Chief Menocal confirmed state and federal agencies are investigating.
“If you see an envelope that says $500 or a thousand dollars and you open the envelope and it’s empty, there are missing monies,” Mayor Jose M. Diaz explained.
He said thousands of dollars have disappeared.
Diaz said some of the cash that’s unaccounted for likely came from towing fees.
In Sweetwater, a city ordinance requires a car be towed when the owner is arrested while driving it.
The fee to reclaim your car was originally set at $500.
Until earlier this year, Southland The Towing Company impounded those cars under a verbal, no-bid agreement with Sweetwater’s former Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira.
Fulgueira retired last week.
The former chief used to oversee the cash collected for towing fees.
CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald uncovered suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño has deep ties to Southland.
Maroño and the owner of Southland, Robert Muriedas, are longtime friends.
State records show the two have done business together before, including operating towing companies.
On record indicates Maroño used to own a company named Southland Towing.
Several sources said authorities are investigating whether police officers and other city officials accepted kickbacks from the towing company.
Since CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald began asking questions about the towing arrangement and the ordinance, things have changed.
The towing fee for people arrested for a misdemeanor offense has been dropped to $250, and the new Deputy Police Chief issued a policy directive that’s cut down drastically on towing.
While the search is on for the missing money, cops did find something else—a clandestine property room attached to remote city offices.
“The property room was discovered by accident,” Lt. Jorge Fernandez de Lara said.
About a month ago, detectives stumbled upon the warehouse just a block away from the police department.
Inside, they found piles of property and evidence related to ongoing criminal cases.
Shoes, clothes and designer merchandise, some of it counterfeit, was thrown haphazardly throughout the space.
“It’s not customary to store property which is also evidence in open criminal cases in a satellite location,” Fernandez de Lara explained.
It took five detectives more than two weeks to catalog everything in the warehouse.
They still don’t know where most of the stuff came from, Fernandez de Lara said.
A memo reviewed by CBS4 News claimed the secret storage room had been in use for about 9 months with the approval of former mayor Maroño.
Only a handful of employees had access to the room including, Detective. Octavio Oliu, civilian employee Richard Brenner and Acting Sgt. Reny Garcia.
Those three men are each the target of an FBI probe and were previously suspended from duty.
The new administration has vowed transparency as state and federal agencies investigate.