Former Wapato mayor facing FBI investigation over alleged public corruption, deputies say

WAPATO, Wash. — Over the years, former Wapato Mayor Juan Orozco has faced dozens of allegations claiming he mishandled city funds, abused his power and helped to exacerbate the city’s financial decline.

Orozco has also faced multiple claims, lawsuits and investigations at the municipal, county and state levels; now, authorities say he’s facing a federal public corruption investigation by the FBI.

“It has risen to a level that we couldn’t fathom,” Yakima County sheriff’s spokesman Casey Schilperoort said.

The sheriff’s office launched a criminal investigation into Orozco and other city officials last fall, sparked by accusations that he had used his position as mayor to unjustly enrich himself.

While deputies found probable cause to arrest Orozco in August, a Yakima County Superior Court judge declined to allow investigators to move on to charging him.

In his decision, Judge Doug Federspiel criticized the affidavit of probable cause put forward by deputies, saying investigators relied too much on evidence brought forth by multiple state auditor’s reports earlier in the year.

“I’m not going to allow the state auditor’s office to assume my role to determine probable cause; that’s my job, not theirs,” Federspiel said at Orozco’s preliminary court appearance.

Orozco’s release from the Yakima County jail sparked questions from concerned city residents worried that the judge’s decision would mean the end of the sheriff’s office investigation.

However, authorities assured the public that the investigation would continue.

“This is not an exoneration,” Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic told KAPP-KVEW in August.

While the sheriff’s office investigation continued for several months, as of Monday, deputies had transferred jurisdiction over the case to federal authorities, Schilperoort said.

“We don’t have the time, the resources, the manpower or the expertise that this type of extensive investigation would require for a successful prosecution,” Schilperoort said.

Schilperoort argues the FBI is better equipped to handle an investigation of this size, the scope of which he says stretches further than Wapato city limits.

KAPP-KVEW contacted the FBI for this story and was provided with the following statement:

“The FBI has been in contact with the sheriff’s office but we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. We will continue to work closely with our partners to best serve our communities.”

Schilperoort said the scope of the federal investigation will likely include a lengthy list of accusations brought against Orozco during his time in public office.

Such allegations include:

  • Election fraud: When Orozco was first elected as mayor in 2017, Wapato residents accused him of voter fraud and intimidation. The alleged misconduct became the basis of an investigation into potential election fraud by Yakima County authorities. At a meeting with the Wapato community last fall, Brusic told the crowd that the investigation had never been completed: it stalled after he says witnesses were intimidated into silence.
  • Abuse of power: Multiple lawsuits by former Wapato police officers accuse Orozco of repeatedly harassing, threatening and intimidating police department employees who were unwilling to comply with his demands.The lawsuits also allege Orozco used police officers as his “personal enforcers” to target his personal and political enemies, reportedly filing false reports against them, pushing for their arrest and attempting to get them fired from their jobs.
  • Financial mismanagement: A series of reports by the state auditor’s office found that under Orozco’s reign, city officials repeatedly violated state law and failed to comply with the city’s own policies. While Orozco was mayor, the city misappropriated about a quarter-million dollars of taxpayer money, taking it away from the city’s water and sewer funds to build a new swimming pool and pay the city’s legal fees, the reports said.
  • Violations of ethics codes: After reviewing state auditor’s reports, the state attorney general filed a lawsuit against Orozco and the city, alleging that Orozco’s appointment as city administrator violated the state’s ethics code for municipal officials. As part of the lawsuit settlement, Orozco resigned from his position.
  • Official misconduct: In August, deputies arrested Orozco on suspicion of two charges: official misconduct and misappropriation and falsification of accounts by a public officer. Deputies argued Orozco engaged in official misconduct when he crafted a lucrative city administrator contract for himself at $95,000 a year, stepped down as mayor and had himself appointed to the position.

The FBI investigates several types of public corruption, but Schilperoort said the likely focus of the case against Orozco will be election crimes, specifically allegations of potential voter or ballot fraud.

“Public corruption, the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority, poses a fundamental threat to our national security and way of life,” the FBI website reads. “The FBI is uniquely situated to combat corruption, with the skills and capabilities to run complex undercover operations and surveillance.”

Schilperoort said if the FBI investigation produces evidence of conduct that may not violate a federal statute, charges could still be pursued at the state or local level.

“No other law enforcement agency has attained the kind of success the FBI has achieved in combating corruption,” the FBI website reads. “This success is due largely to the cooperation and coordination from a number of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to combat public corruption.”