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California

Huizar staffer claims he was punished for discussing bribe suspicions with the FBI

 Jose Huizar
An aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar has accused his boss of retaliating against him for talking to federal investigators. Huizar, in turn, said the staffer was put on administrative leave for engaging in “unethical behavior.”
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

An aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar has filed a $10-million legal claim against the city, alleging the councilman retaliated against him after he spoke with federal investigators about possible criminal activity involving his boss.

Huizar staffer Jesse Leon said in his claim that he received a termination letter after he talked to federal law enforcement officials about his suspicion that Huizar had attempted to “extort money or solicit bribes from operators of cannabis businesses.”

Leon, 40, accused Huizar and Paul Habib, the councilman’s chief of staff, of violating federal antidiscrimination and whistleblower protection laws, according to the two-page claim filed with the city clerk’s office. The claim says Leon was put on administrative leave on Aug. 9 and was issued a termination letter a month later saying his last day would be Oct. 31.

“Huizar’s and Habib’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, and caused Leon severe emotional distress,” the claim says.

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Huizar called the allegations of retaliation “absolutely false,” saying Leon had come under scrutiny for ethical reasons. The city’s lawyers concluded last summer that Leon had attempted to secure a cannabis license while also serving as Huizar’s policy adviser on cannabis regulations — a financial conflict of interest, the councilman said.

“Jesse was, in fact, intimately involved in creating the ordinance for the program for which he and his wife applied,” Huizar said in an emailed statement. “After a discussion with Jesse, we concluded that he failed to provide truthful accounts of his actions.”

Leon filed his claim in September, after he had been confronted with conflict of interest questions, Huizar said. “This is an obvious attempt by Jesse to deflect from his unethical behavior,” he said.

At City Hall, submitting a claim is a step that frequently leads to the filing of a lawsuit.

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Leon has been earning more than $101,000 annually as a council aide, according to a spokesman for the city’s personnel department, and is still on the payroll, city officials said.

Leon submitted an application to the Department of Cannabis Regulation to be vetted as a “social equity” applicant, a key step in becoming eligible to apply for the latest round of licensing, according to agency records. The social equity program aims to assist marijuana entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Leon did not ultimately file an application to run a cannabis business, according to department records.

The dispute between Huizar and his aide comes roughly a year after FBI agents raided Huizar’s home and offices.

Investigators issued subpoenas to real estate developers seeking information on contributions made to Huizar’s reelection bid, his officeholder committee, any legal defense fund, his alma mater, Bishop Mora Salesian High School, and two political committees with ties to the councilman.

Huizar’s name also appeared in a search warrant filed last year by investigators seeking possible evidence of bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering. The warrant named 12 others, including Councilman Curren Price, Council President Herb Wesson’s chief of staff and two Huizar aides.

Leon is the third Huizar staffer in a little more than a year to accuse the councilman of engaging in retaliation.

In October 2018, former Huizar aide Mayra Alvarez filed a lawsuit alleging she was punished for voicing concerns that her boss was having an affair with an aide and committing “potential legal and ethical violations.”

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A week later, former Huizar staffer Pauline Medina filed a lawsuit containing similar claims. Medina, who has a son with one of Huizar’s brothers, also alleged that staffers were instructed to raise money for Salesian High School, where the councilman’s wife spent several years working as a paid fundraiser.

Huizar previously called Alvarez’s allegations “completely false” and referred to Medina’s claims as “crazy.” The councilman also described Medina as a disgruntled former employee who “left on her own accord after being confronted with an investigation that revealed her misconduct.”

Leon, Medina and Alvarez are represented by Terrence Jones, a Whittier-based attorney. In his claim, Leon said Huizar also retaliated against him for meeting with City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office to discuss the Alvarez and Medina lawsuits.

Jones declined to directly address Huizar’s conflict of interest allegations, saying instead that “the public should be leery of Huizar’s hyperbole and spin.”

“The council member knows quite well that Mr. Leon, having served as Huizar’s campaign manager for his reelection bid against former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, is in a better position than most to credibly speak about the goings on in that office. I can see how that would make him nervous,” Jones said in an email.

Leon has worked off and on for Huizar over the last 12 years. According to his LinkedIn page, he was a staffer for the councilman from 2007 to 2011, then did stints with the city attorney’s office and the district attorney’s office.

After working on Huizar’s reelection campaign, he returned as a Huizar staffer, becoming director of external affairs, the website says.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.


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