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Column: For Councilman Englander, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas

City Councilman Mitch Englander
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander in 2015.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

I don’t know what former L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander and his buddies were thinking when they went to Las Vegas in 2017.

A councilman, two city staffers, a businessperson, a real estate developer and a lobbyist travel to Sin City.

Knowing how L.A. works, what would you guess they were up to?

They’re big fans of Carrot Top?

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I don’t think so, and neither does the U.S. attorney.

You probably know by now that on Monday, Englander — who in 2018 abruptly and somewhat mysteriously quit his job as the L.A. City Councilman representing the Northwestern San Fernando Valley — surrendered to federal authorities in connection with what happened on that Vegas trip. He was slapped with seven criminal charges related to an ongoing City Hall corruption probe.

If the indictment is accurate, it’s hard to believe the arrogance of Englander and his pals. It’s not like they had traveled to Mongolia; they were just a few hours from home, where someone might have spotted them. All I can figure is that they thought they’d run into David Copperfield and he’d make them invisible for a few days.

The feds say Englander and the gang partied in Sin City on the dime of an unnamed businessman who was “seeking to increase his business opportunities in the city.” The booze flowed, casino chips were free, female escorts were part of the package and Englander was handed an envelope stuffed with cash.

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The federal grand jury indictment of Englander begins with a reference to “multiple suspected pay-to-play schemes” at City Hall involving “multiple city officials, developers, investors, consultants, lobbyists, and other close associates working in furtherance of the potentially illegal schemes.”

If that’s not engraved on a wall at City Hall, it should be.

The fact that Englander was the first to get jammed up on the feds’ corruption probe came as a surprise to many, given that they raided the home and office of Councilman Jose Huizar way back in 2018. No charges have been filed against Huizar, but the federal search warrant at the time had investigators looking at possible bribery, extortion, kickbacks and money laundering involving several city officials and business figures.

The striking thing about the Englander indictment is his apparent stunning lack of sophistication, which seems to have made him an easy mark for federal investigators. Englander, by the way, was a self-touted public safety advocate and former LAPD reserve police officer.

So Officer Dum-Dum, according to the indictment, went to Vegas on June 1, 2017. He was a member of a powerful City Council committee that vets development proposals, and went with the aforementioned pals, who just might have had a development proposal in mind?

Are these the only knuckleheads in the world who believed that line about how what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?

The indictment alleges that in a casino bathroom, Englander accepted an envelope from a businessperson, and it was stuffed with $10,000 in cash. The same businessperson — whose identity I’d love to know, so call me if you know who he or any of the others are — gave Englander $1,000 in casino chips and covered a $2,481 dinner tab for the group.

The high-rollers then allegedly went to another hotel, where the same businessperson covered a $24,000 “bottle service” tab. And then the developer in the group paid another $10,000 for “bottle service and alcohol” at a party that ran into the next morning.

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So that’s $34,000 for one night of spirits. How is that possible?

I called former Las Vegas mayor and longtime mob attorney Oscar Goodman, who once nearly got me killed at a party celebrating a mob murder acquittal, but that’s another story.

“What month was it?” Goodman asked of the Englander junket. “I don’t know whether it was in summer, but they have these little beach parties at various hotels …. Sometimes people from the entertainment world drop a hundred thousand dollars on a Sunday night, and that’s without gambling.”

Goodman, who owns Oscar’s Steakhouse in Vegas, told me price depends on taste.

“If you’re drinking the equivalent of Dom Perignon … or Louis XIII cognac, anyone can run up a bill real fast,” Goodman said.

Or it was one heck of a lot beer, and if this did indeed happen at one of those beach parties, remind me to never enter a swimming pool in Las Vegas.

According to the indictment, a night of drinking was not the end of the party. The next morning, the businessperson allegedly paid for and sent a female escort to Englander’s hotel room. According to Goodman, this kind of thing is not unknown to happen in Vegas.

Now let’s jump ahead a few days to June 10, 2017. That’s when hardworking Councilman Englander went to a golf tournament at the Morongo Casino Hotel & Resort in Palm Springs, according to the indictment, where he stepped into the bathroom, and imagine his luck — the same businessperson he hung with in Vegas was in the john with another envelope stuffed with cash. This time the jackpot was $5,000.

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So where does the pay to play part come in? I’m glad you asked.

A week later, said the indictment, “defendant Englander, Businessperson A, and Developer B had lunch so that defendant Englander would introduce Businessperson A and his company and product to Developer B.”

I am shocked, shocked, shocked that things might happen this way.

According to the indictment, when Englander began feeling the heat, he tried to cover his tracks, apparently unaware that the sleazy businessperson with all the cash was by then working with the feds and relaying conversations in which Englander repeatedly told him to lie to investigators.

Later, Englander allegedly did his own lying when investigators asked him about all of this. Now he’s looking at three counts of witness tampering, three counts of making false statements and one count of scheming to falsify facts. Englander pleaded not guilty and was released on $50,000 bail, but the former public safety candidate could be looking at years behind bars if convicted.

This case stands as a reminder that the perception exists for some people in the Los Angeles business world that there’s a price for getting what you want out of City Hall. Of course, most people who need a favor are smart enough to realize campaign finance laws are so toothless, they can buy influence without breaking the law.

It’s worth noting that one of the city officials along on the Vegas trip was John Lee, who worked as Englander’s chief of staff and is now the councilman for the same district. Some folks are calling for Lee to step down over the Vegas incident, but Lee said in a statement that he was “unaware of any illegal activities” and has cooperated with investigators. He said he “did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip.”

So why did Lee go on the trip, why were there any expenses to reimburse, and isn’t “everything in my power” a curious choice of words?

Lee, by the way, is running for reelection and leads his challenger, Loraine Lundquist. But a full week after the election, county officials were still counting. Anybody have an abacus you can send to the county registrar?

On another note, city attorney Mike Feuer this week announced his run for mayor just eight months after FBI agents raided the office he runs, serving warrants in an investigation of two lawsuits related to the disastrous DWP billing scandal.

My advice is that you stay tuned, stay healthy, and think twice about rolling the dice in Vegas.

One day, hopefully sooner than later, we’ll knock down the new coronavirus that’s got people rattled. But there is no vaccine for the virus that infects City Hall.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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