Santa Ana police officer pleads guilty to bribery

A Santa Ana police officer pleaded guilty Wednesday to accepting $128,000 in bribes to protect illegal businesses operating in the city.

Officer Steven Lopez, 29, admitted he took the money from an unnamed crime figure in return for a promise to keep law enforcement officers from inspecting, searching or shutting down the businesses.

The man who made the payoffs was seeking protection for Vietnamese gambling operations, according to a person familiar with the matter. It was unclear whether Lopez, who joined Santa Ana’s police force in 2016, was in a position to provide such protection.

Lopez took some of the money last September in a late-night meeting with the man on the top floor of a parking structure across the street from Santa Ana police headquarters, Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Lim said at a court hearing conducted remotely on Zoom.

On another occasion, Lopez was wearing his police uniform and driving a marked patrol car when he took a payoff at the corner of West 1st and Fairview streets in Santa Ana, Lim said.

Lopez, who pleaded guilty to one count of bribery, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“You may be disappointed at the court’s ultimate sentence,” U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II told Lopez. The defendant, wearing a business suit and a red plaid mask, answered the judge’s questions from an office where he was seated next to his lawyer, Brian Gurwitz.

Gurwitz said before the hearing that Lopez’s crime “was the result of serious personal issues that he’s addressing.” He declined to be more specific.

“He regrets very deeply the harm he caused to the reputation of the Santa Ana Police Department and also feels it’s important to assure the public that nobody else in his department was involved in accepting bribes, to his knowledge,” Gurwitz said. “He wants to make sure that the public doesn’t feel that this was part of any larger conspiracy or anything like that.”

Lopez, who remains on paid administrative leave from the Santa Ana Police Department, is scheduled to be sentenced May 3.

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