When a Los Angeles businessman treated then-City Councilman Mitchell Englander to a night out in Las Vegas in 2017, he pulled out all the stops, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday.
The perks allegedly included a hotel room with amenities reserved for high rollers, an envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash, lavish meals and bottle service at a nightclub, and a female escort sent to his room at the end of a long night of partying.
But when FBI agents grilled Englander about what happened in Vegas, the councilman said he had taken no cash from the businessman — one of several alleged lies that would compound Englander’s legal woes. And when asked if he had gotten any freebies besides the hotel room, dinner and casino chips that he had paid back, Englander said, “Not that I recall.”
Englander, 49, surrendered to federal authorities Monday and was charged with obstructing an investigation into his allegedly accepting such gifts from the businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs. He faces seven criminal counts — three of witness tampering, three for allegedly making false statements and a single count of scheming to falsify facts. Englander pleaded not guilty and was released on a $50,000 bond guaranteed by his wife.
The former councilman is the first City Hall figure to be publicly charged in connection with a sweeping probe that has delved into the worlds of L.A. politics and real estate development. Federal officials billed the charges against Englander as part of “an ongoing public corruption investigation.”
Englander announced he was planning to step down from the council in 2018, less than a month before FBI agents descended on the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar. A federal search warrant filed more than a year ago indicated that agents have been seeking evidence of potential crimes including bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering involving more than a dozen people, including Huizar and other city officials and business figures.
Federal officials have not publicly announced charges against any of those individuals. Englander, who was not mentioned in that warrant, would face a maximum of 50 years in federal prison if convicted on all charges. He was ordered to surrender his passport, not contact any other defendants or potential witnesses, and to return to court Thursday.
His attorney Janet Levine said in a statement Monday that Englander was proud of the work he had done for his community. “Despite this setback, with the support of his family and friends, he looks forward to continuing his lifelong contributions to the community that has given him so much,” Levine said.
Englander made the trip to Vegas in June 2017 with an unidentified businessman who was “seeking to increase his business opportunities in the city,” according to the indictment. Accompanying Englander were one of his top aides, another city staffer, a lobbyist and a real estate developer whom prosecutors dubbed “Developer A.”
The businessman got people in the group hotel rooms and “amenities ordinarily limited to VIP customers,” investigators found. In a bathroom at the resort, the man also handed Englander an envelope containing $10,000 in cash, according to the indictment.
The businessman also gave Englander roughly $1,000 in casino chips, which the councilman used to gamble before returning chips to the businessman. The indictment did not specify the value of the chips he returned.
The man also treated the group to $2,481 in dinner and drinks at a restaurant at the Vegas resort and paid about $24,000 for bottle service and alcohol at a nightclub, which the real estate developer supplemented with an additional $10,000 for drinks, federal investigators found.
In the early morning, after they returned to their hotel, the businessman told Englander he was ordering female escorts for the group, whom he paid $300 to $400 in cash for their services, the indictment states.
Englander is the only person identified by name in the document. His former chief of staff John Lee — who was later elected to fill his seat — said Monday that he had been on the Las Vegas trip with Englander and “did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip.”
“I was unaware of any illegal activities for which Councilmember Englander is being charged,” Councilman Lee said in a statement, later adding that he was unaware that escorts were allegedly involved. “I completely cooperated with the FBI when they contacted me for voluntary interviews in July and August 2017 and will continue to do so.”
Lee recently ran for reelection against college educator Loraine Lundquist, who has lagged behind him in votes tallied as of Friday. Lundquist said voters should have had this “critical information” before going to the polls, and she demanded, “What did John Lee know, when did he know it, and was he involved in the cover-up?”
The indictment also details meetings Englander had with the unnamed businessman in Palm Springs in June 2017. Englander allegedly accepted an envelope with $5,000 in cash from the businessman in a casino bathroom while the men attended a golf tournament.
A week later, Englander brought the businessman to lunch with a person identified in the indictment as “Developer B,” whom prosecutors described as the CEO of a construction company. The purpose of the lunch, the indictment said, was to introduce the businessman and his company to the developer.
After the lunch, the developer emailed the men to thank them and suggested another meeting to allow the businessman to make a “presentation,” according to the indictment.
FBI agents and prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s public corruption unit turned their attention to Englander in June 2017, when they intercepted a phone call about perks the unnamed businessman allegedly provided to public officials, according to the indictment.
The call led investigators to begin digging into whether Englander, a second City Council member referred to in the indictment as “Councilmember A,” and two staffers — one who worked for Englander, the other for the unnamed council member — had received “personal benefits” from the businessman.
The businessman soon agreed to cooperate with the federal investigation and relayed conversations in which Englander repeatedly told him to lie to investigators, according to the indictment.
“You and I have never had a conversation” about what to tell FBI agents, Englander instructed the businessman during a private conversation at a political fundraiser, according to the indictment.
Englander also allegedly told the businessman to falsely tell agents that Englander had tried repeatedly to reimburse the man for his hotel room and meals on the Las Vegas trip. As for the “massage lady,” federal investigators say that Englander told the businessman, “Don’t say it … Don’t mention … No, no, don’t mention it,” according to the indictment.
When the two men met days later in Englander’s car, the councilman allegedly turned up the volume of music that was playing in an attempt to thwart any listening devices and, while driving in circles around downtown Los Angeles, again instructed the man to lie to agents, the indictment said.
After learning about the federal investigation, Englander also contacted the businessman through an encrypted messaging service, telling him that he wanted to reimburse him for portions of the Las Vegas trip, the indictment states. Federal investigators say that Englander then sent a $442 check to the businessman backdated to appear as if he had sought to reimburse the businessman before the FBI contacted him.
The package also included a second check, marked with the same date, from the Englander aide. Lundquist, the candidate who ran against Councilman Lee, said that if it was Lee who backdated the check, “he should resign.”
In interviews with the FBI, Englander repeatedly made false statements, including about the perks he had gotten from the businessman, the indictment alleges.
Englander also failed to report the $15,000 he had received from the businessman on annual forms that lawmakers are required to fill out about gifts, federal investigators alleged.
Englander was first elected to the council in 2011 and reelected in 2015, then announced he was stepping down before the end of his term to take a job with Oak View Group, a sports and entertainment firm.
When he first ran for City Council, Englander campaigned as the “official public safety candidate,” touting his support from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, and other law enforcement groups. In one campaign mailer, he can be seen in his LAPD uniform, which he wore as a reserve officer.
Englander represented the northwestern stretches of the San Fernando Valley on the council, including Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills, and sat on three of the most powerful committees at City Hall — one focused on the budget, another on public safety, and a third that vetted real estate development. The councilman also made an unsuccessful run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.