SAN FRANCISCO - Keith Christopher, Isaiah Wells, and Dustin Albini pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to charges of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and bribery of a public official, announced United States Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan. Another co-defendant, Tanisa Smith-Symes, pleaded guilty earlier to the same charges based on the same underlying conduct. The pleas were entered before United States District Judge Susan Illston.
On September 29, 2021, Keith Christopher, 38, of Pittsburg, Calif.; Isaiah Wells, 33, of Tracy, Calif.; Tanisa Smith-Symes, 46, of Las Vegas, Nevada; and Dustin Albini, 38, of Pittsburg, Calif., were charged in a federal indictment with bribery of a public official and conspiring to smuggle numerous cell phones into San Quentin State Prison (SQP) located in Marin County. Each defendant entered a plea agreement admitting their own participation in the criminal conspiracy and briberies.
Christopher was employed as a Correctional Officer at SQP and, as described in the indictment, worked in SQP’s East Block, known as Death Row. Cell phones are deemed contraband for prisoners in all parts of the prison as they create safety and security risks for prison employees and other inmates. The California Code of Regulations accordingly prohibits prisoners from possessing cell phones.
Christopher admitted in his plea agreement that as a correctional officer in 2019 he orchestrated a conspiracy involving Wells, Albini, Smith-Symes, and a condemned inmate referred to in the plea agreement only as “Inmate 1.” According to Christopher’s plea agreement, the object of the conspiracy was to pay Christopher bribes in exchange for his smuggling of contraband cell phones into SQP. He delivered the cell phones to Inmate 1, who in turn sold the phones to other inmates.
Christopher’s plea agreement includes descriptions of two instances in which he arranged to receive bribes in exchange for smuggling cell phones into the prison. In the first instance, Christopher admitted that in December 2019, Inmate 1 arranged for 10 cell phones to be shipped to the Nevada residence of an associate. That associate was Smith-Symes. Christopher instructed Smith-Symes to send the cell phones to Albini’s residence in Pittsburg, Calif. Christopher then collected the 10 cell phones from Albini and smuggled them into SQP for Inmate 1. Inmate 1 was the ultimate source of the bribes, and Smith-Symes informed Inmate 1 that Christopher’s price for smuggling the phones was $5,000. At Christopher’s direction, Smith-Symes sent some of the $5,000 to Albini and some to Wells. Christopher admitted that he collected the bribe money from both Wells and Albini.
The second example in Christopher’s plea agreement of smuggling cell phones into SQP in exchange for bribes involves a May 2020 transaction. Christopher admitted that he agreed to smuggle 15 more cell phones into SQP for Inmate 1 and requested a bribe of $7,500. Inmate 1 once again arranged to have the phones shipped to Smith-Symes. Christopher directed Smith-Symes to send those cell phones to the Tracy, Calif. address for Wells, which she did. Smith-Symes also forwarded a text message from Inmate 1 to Christopher requesting that Christopher reduce his smuggling fee from $7,500 to $6,500. Christopher agreed and directed Smith-Symes to send the $6,500 payment to Wells. Christopher retrieved the 15 cell phones and approximately $6,000 in cash from Wells, leaving Wells the balance as his fee. Christopher admitted he then smuggled the 15 cell phones into SQP and delivered them to Inmate 1.
For her part, Smith-Symes described in her plea agreement that in 2018 she began a romantic relationship with the condemned Inmate 1 at SQP. Starting in 2019, Inmate 1 began asking for favors, eventually asking her to help smuggle contraband cellphones into SQP. She agreed and followed Inmate 1’s direction to work with a SQP Corrections Officer she knew as “Dude,” who was Christopher. Smith-Symes admitted she conspired with Christopher as well as Wells and Albini to smuggle the cell phones into SQP and to pay bribes to Christopher.
In their plea agreements, both Wells and Albini admitted they joined the conspiracy to pay bribes to Christopher in exchange for his use of his official position to smuggle cell phones into SQP. Each admitted that they knowingly and willingly engaged in their respective roles in the conspiracy and briberies.
Each defendant pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud in violation of 18 USC §§ 1343, 1346, and 1349, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Each defendant also pleaded guilty to two counts of bribery of a public official in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. However, any sentence following a conviction is imposed by a court only after the court’s consideration of the United States Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 USC § 3553.
U.S. District Judge Illston scheduled sentencing hearings for Christopher and Wells for January 13, 2023, and set status hearings for Albini and Smith-Symes for September 15, 2023.
Assistant US Attorney Casey Boome is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Erick Machado and Margoth Turcios. The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the FBI and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Internal Affairs.