Former Adelanto mayor sentenced to prison in cannabis bribery scheme

Richard Kerr, the former Adelanto mayor who vowed to save his cash-strapped high desert city by embracing medical marijuana businesses, was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison Friday in connection with taking bribes from cannabis interests.

Imposing a sentence lighter than the 46-month term that federal prosecutors requested, U.S. District Judge John W. Holcomb in Santa Ana said he took took into account the 66-year-old defendant’s health, his service as a U.S. Marine, and his family obligations.

After more than two decades as a Marine, Kerr won election in 2014 in Adelanto, a struggling 53-square-mile city known for its prisons and immigration detention center. He promised that Adelanto, where 40% of residents lived in poverty, would one day be the “Silicon Valley of medical marijuana.”

Voters turned Kerr out of office in 2018, months after the FBI raided his home as part of a corruption probe. In 2021, he was charged with taking more than $57,000 in bribes and kickbacks while mayor in exchange for approving ordinances and securing permits for pot-related businesses.

In February, Kerr pleaded guilty to one count involving wire fraud. According to his plea agreement, the illicit payments from Kerr’s “co-schemers” — described as an attorney and various business people — were disguised as donations to a charity fund or to his election campaign.

Kerr’s attorney, Carlos L. Juarez, described his client as a man with a GED and little formal education who entered politics late in life.

“He did his darnedest to serve the people but along the way got caught up in a web of political corruption,” Juarez said, describing his client as “naive.”

In remarks to the judge before sentencing, Kerr said he attributed his plight to “stupidity” and “doing dumb things” rather than malevolence.

He said that during his time as mayor, Adelanto profited hugely from taxation of the cannabis industry he championed, and enjoyed “thousands of jobs and hundreds of new homes.”

Asst. U.S. Atty. Sean Peterson asked the judge to give Kerr nearly four years in prison, arguing it would deter others tempted to break laws in the state’s pot industry.

“It’s not that there was just one bribe,” Peterson said, but a series of them over 2½ years. “It’s serious conduct.”

Edwin Snell, who described himself as a community activist, told the judge that Kerr promised him and a partner he would be allowed to open a dispensary in Adelanto but instead sold it “to the highest bidder.”

He said Kerr’s habit of invoking the Marine Corps was meant to evoke trust but was part of his act as “a very complex con artist.”

“He promised us a dispensary and Semper Fi’d it,” Snell said, adding: “Every person that voted for him was betrayed. Every person that voted for him was hornswoggled.”

Diana Esmeralda Holte, an Adelanto resident and former secretary for the High Desert Cannabis Assn., told the judge that in 2017 she applied for one of the four pot-dispensary licenses the city was issuing.

She said the city blocked her license because she was unwilling to pay a $7,000 bribe, and that Kerr’s allies smeared her reputation.

“I think he deserves a million years,” she said in an interview before the sentencing, “but 20 would be reasonable.”

In court papers, Kerr’s attorney described the case as a “complete embarrassment to Kerr,” adding: “While once well-renowned and respected in the community, he has brought his family name to shame.”

In letters to the judge pleading for leniency, Kerr’s family and supporters described him as a veteran who grew up poor, struggled with alcohol, suffers from emphysema, and supports five of his eight grandchildren.

Kerr’s wife, Mistey Kerr, told the judge that while her husband was mayor he instituted movies in the park, organized a rodeo, and supported food and toy giveaways at Christmas.

Last year, a jury convicted Jermaine Wright, Adelanto’s former mayor pro tem, of taking a $10,000 bribe from an FBI agent posing as a pot entrepreneur. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

It was part of a wave of cannabis-related corruption prosecutions across the state.

California legalized recreational marijuana in 2016 with Proposition 64, but the ballot measure empowered local officials — often low-paid, part-time ones — to act as gatekeepers to the hypercompetitive industry.

Across the state, the “green rush” was accompanied by play-to-play schemes, with corruption cases seizing headlines in the rural north and in southern border towns, in urban centers and in desert communities.

The judge ordered Kerr to surrender himself to federal custody in November to begin serving his sentence.

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