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Newsletter: A sitting L.A. councilman is arrested

Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who has now been suspended, addresses a news conference at City Hall in 2011.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, June 24, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Jose Huizar’s political future seemed quite limitless back in April 2017, when the Los Angeles city councilman allegedly emailed himself a document titled “TO DO LIST” from his computer.

He had risen from humble beginnings to a seat on the L.A. school board in his early 30s, and ascended to the City Council just a few years later, when he replaced newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a 2005 special election to represent an Eastside council district that spans from downtown to Eagle Rock. Huizar prided himself on being the first foreign-born Latino to serve on the council, and representing the Boyle Heights community where he was raised.

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By 2017, he had been in his powerful post for more than a decade. Sure, there had been a sexual harassment lawsuit and acknowledgment of a “consensual relationship” with a former female staffer, but he’d still been reelected for a third time even after those scandals with “widespread support from business leaders, the city’s labor unions and advocates for transportation improvements, such as bicycle lanes,” according to my City Hall reporter colleagues.

The to-do list he emailed himself that April allegedly had a section on his “Next Political Steps” that included the following sub-headings: (1) Senate; (2) City-Wide; (3) City Attorney; and (4) “[Relative A-1] For CD 14.”

At that point in time, he had just a few years left on the City Council before term limits forced him out at the end of 2020 and higher offices loomed. Maybe he would run for mayor of Los Angeles when his term ended, or maybe he would run for city attorney. Either way, he hoped to leave behind a new political dynasty in Council District 14. The relative in question was his wife, Richelle Huizar, who would announce her bid for her husband’s council seat the next year and immediately be seen as a strong contender to replace him.

But none of these aspirations would come to pass. On Tuesday, Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested on corruption charges, making him the most prominent figure to face charges in the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall.

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[Read the story: “L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar arrested in corruption probe” in the Los Angeles Times]

Huizar now faces a racketeering charge arising from allegations he ran a sprawling pay-to-play scheme, involving real estate developers allegedly getting shaken down for cash bribes and campaign donations in exchange for Huizar’s help getting high-rise development projects through the city’s arduous approval process. The alleged pay-to-play scheme is detailed at great length in an a 172-page affidavit, which also includes the aforementioned to-do list.

There were allegedly lavish meals, luxury travel, “massage services,” casino chips and the requisite closet full of cash (in this case, nearly $130,000, stuffed in the pocket of a suit jacket, concealed in large envelopes and wrapped in a T-shirt), according to the affidavit. The perks were allegedly being offered up by developers, and Huizar was the head of the enterprise, prosecutors said, repeatedly referred to by others involved in the scheme as “the boss.”

[Read more: “Cash, casino chips, hotel rooms and an affair: Inside the Jose Huizar indictment” in the Los Angeles Times]

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“This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” U.S. Atty. Nick Hanna told my colleagues. “Councilman Huizar violated the public trust to a staggering degree, allegedly soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from multiple sources over many years. Using the power of his office to approve or stall large building projects, Huizar worked through a web of other corrupt city officials, lobbyists, consultants and developers to line his pockets.”

Tuesday’s charges against Huizar, as my colleagues David Zahniser, Emily Alpert Reyes and Joel Rubin write, “had long been anticipated.”

The trajectory of the councilman’s rising political star had begun to fracture in the fall of 2018, with lawsuits filed by two former staffers that October and an FBI raid of his home and offices that November. His wife dropped her short-lived candidacy for his seat soon after, and the councilman was also stripped of many committee assignments shortly after the raids.

Public fallout from the FBI probe into corruption at City Hall intensified this spring, when former City Councilman Mitch Englander became the first City Hall figure to be publicly charged in connection with it in March. As my colleagues explain in their story, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office appeared to close in on Huizar in recent months as they methodically charged associates who admitted to taking part in illicit deals involving the councilman. Authorities internally dubbed the investigation “Operation Casino Loyale.”

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In late May, federal prosecutors announced that George Esparza, a longtime aide to Huizar, had agreed to plead guilty in a scheme that involved hitting up developers for cash and other bribes in exchange for help with real estate projects. For years, George Esparza had been known as one of Huizar’s closest aides, driving him around town, attending to him at events and serving as his special assistant.

A day later, Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez publicly called on Huizar to “resign immediately.” He did not.

Things moved quickly after Tuesday’s arrest. While Huizar was still in custody, the City Council voted unanimously to suspend him, with Council President Nury Martinez describing the arrest as “a stain on our city government.”

The suspension means that Huizar cannot exercise any powers of the office and leaves his seat temporarily vacant, according to a spokesman in the city attorney’s office.

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As my colleagues explain in their story, an obvious replacement would be former state Sen. Kevin de León, who was elected in March to replace Huizar at the end of the year. Garcetti proposed this on Tuesday, and De León said he is prepared to serve when called.

In the meantime, the next items on Huizar’s current to-do list include a preliminary hearing, tentatively set for July 14, and an arraignment scheduled for July 20. He could face up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California shattered a daily record for new coronavirus cases with more than 6,000 infections reported Monday — the largest single-day count in the state since the pandemic hit the U.S. In Los Angeles County, officials on Tuesday reported more than 2,000 new cases for the fourth time in the last week, bringing the total number of infections to more than 88,200. Officials also reported 34 additional deaths, increasing the death toll to 3,171 — the bulk of the state’s total.

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The case count is only one metric in tracking the spread of the virus, and, while increased testing capacity may account for part of the increase, officials have said the surge cannot be pegged to testing alone. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County leaders call for independent investigation into Andres Guardado’s death: The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion at Tuesday’s board meeting calling for an independent investigation into the death of an 18-year-old security guard who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies last week. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

A deeply divided Los Angeles school board failed to agree on proposed reforms to the school police, effectively leaving the matter to a task force created by Supt. Austin Beutner and disappointing activists who had called for eliminating the department. Los Angeles Times

Mayor Garcetti is under fire for his handling of police brutality protests. Garcetti, known for avoiding political risk, has appeared at times whipsawed by the protests and their aftermath. Los Angeles Times

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Coronavirus devastates a Koreatown family, one by one. After losing their grandmother and father to COVID-19, a brother and sister fight for their mother’s recovery. Los Angeles Times

The L.A. City Council has passed a $100-million coronavirus rent relief program: The money would provide up to $2,000 in rental assistance for low-income households who have lost work, fallen ill or had to assist sick family members during the crisis. While the $100-million effort is the largest passed by any U.S. city to help tenants pay their rent, it would still fall short of reaching all who have been affected by the pandemic in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

Immigrant detainees at Adelanto Detention Center say officers pepper-sprayed them for peacefully protesting. Four detainees were treated at an off-site medical facility, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have acknowledged. LAist

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The Trump administration has considered scaling back the national emergency declared earlier this year to combat the coronavirus pandemic, even as cases surge. The prospect has stoked alarm among public health leaders, physicians, hospital officials and others who are trying to control the outbreak and fear that such a move would make it more difficult for state and local governments and health systems to keep the coronavirus in check. Los Angeles Times

A federal prosecutor is expected to testify before Congress on Wednesday that he faced political pressure to go easy on Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Trump who was convicted of lying to Congress in its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The bombshell allegations were made in prepared testimony that the prosecutor is expected to deliver at a House Judiciary Committee hearing examining alleged political interference at the Justice Department. Los Angeles Times

L.A.'s own Rep. Karen Bass moves onto Biden’s vice presidential list: The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus is undergoing vetting to be former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate, according to a person familiar with the process. Bass is now the second Californian in the vice presidential mix, joining Sen. Kamala Harris, who is widely seen as one of the frontrunners for the job. Los Angeles Times

Rep. Karen Bass speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup
Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles speaks during a House Judiciary Committee meeting.
(Associated Press)
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CRIME AND COURTS

A woman is wanted for assault after coughing on a 1-year-old baby in a social distancing dispute. After becoming upset that the woman standing behind her with a stroller in a San Jose Yogurtland was not maintaining proper social distancing, the suspect leaned over the stroller and coughed multiple times on the baby’s face. San Francisco Chronicle

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Two small, poor and predominantly Latino communities in Kern County have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 countywide. Arvin and Lamont are both south of Bakersfield. Bakersfield Californian

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Canadian “snowbird” travelers — many of whom call the Coachella Valley home for several months of the year — are weighing travel insurance and coronavirus costs before returning this winter. Even if travel restrictions are eased, the valley’s Canadian snowbirds may not come back for fear of contracting the virus or simply to avoid the potentially high medical costs — which could mean a big financial hit for the Coachella Valley. Desert Sun

Will California rename “Negro Bar”? A state park in Folsom confronts its racist history once more. Sacramento Bee

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An Orange County assisted-living facility created “The Porch” to allow loved ones to visit from a safe distance during the pandemic. The porch itself is a patriotically decorated 12-by-7-foot area buffered by bushes. Orange County Register

How the Oakland Unified School District got its own police force. Police have been in Oakland schools for decades, and opposition has existed for just as long. Oaklandside

Tech companies are famous for moving fast. Yet despite calling diversity a priority since 2014, they remain mostly white and mostly male. Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Advertisement” by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanisław Barańczak. Poetry Foundation

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 71. San Francisco: sunny, 66. San Jose: sunny, 87. Fresno: sunny, 105. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from James Raia:

When my sister and I were kids growing up in Walnut Creek in the 1960s, my mother would sometimes drive us into San Francisco to meet my father, an insurance company executive in San Francisco. He worked on Montgomery Street, and always looked sharp in a Brooks Brothers suit, diagonally striped tie and wingtips. We might go to Tadich Grill or into Chinatown for dim sum. I always knew we were getting close because as we crossed the Bay Bridge, the wondrous smell of Hills Bros. Coffee on the Embarcadero would permeate the air. If we were lucky, Tony Bennett might be singing “I left My Heart in San Francisco” on a prominent AM radio station of the era, KSFO 560.

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If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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