Federal charges against ex-councilman shock the San Fernando Valley. ‘It’s like a movie!’
The shopper at the Ralphs supermarket in Porter Ranch didn’t hold back Tuesday morning when she spotted the front-page newspaper headline about the indictment of Mitch Englander.
“It’s embarrassing,” she said of the charges facing the former Los Angeles city councilman.
This tightknit corner of the San Fernando Valley was rocked this week by the allegations against Englander, a well-known politician with a boyish face who twice won election in the council district.
Englander was charged Monday with obstructing a federal investigation into cash, lavish meals, escort services and other gifts that officials say he accepted from a businessman during trips. The former councilman is the only person so far to be publicly charged in connection with a wide-reaching investigation into corruption and pay-to-play schemes at Los Angeles City Hall.
The indictment also marks the first time in decades that a council member from this district has been caught up in a major City Hall scandal.
With its single-family homes, wide boulevards and horse farms, and a relatively large population of Republican voters, this neighborhood in the northwest Valley has the feel of a suburb, far removed from the City Hall corruption that ensnares politicians in other areas of Los Angeles.
“We stand alone,” said Granada Hills resident Harold Gugel, sitting in a Starbucks in Porter Ranch on Tuesday.
Englander’s alleged crimes have stunned local residents. At cafes and coffee shops across the district this week, many were both dismayed and amused by the charges leveled at the former councilman, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and had a home in Granada Hills.
The salacious details outlined in the indictment — including allegations that an escort was sent to Englander’s hotel room in Las Vegas and that he played loud music in his car to thwart potential listening devices — sparked a flurry of conversation across the district.
“People are calling off the hook,” said Michael Benedetto, a real estate agent who lives in Granada Hills, serves on a local neighborhood council and is president of a chamber of commerce.
Gugel said the online comments on his Next Door community page “erupted” Monday when the news broke about Englander, whom he described as a committed councilmember who stepped in to help stop a new freeway ramp on a street near his home.
“I always thought he was bright and trustworthy,” Gugel said. “Now I’m not so sure.”
As a council member, Englander represented the neighborhoods of Porter Ranch, Granada Hills, Chatsworth, West Hills and Northridge after first serving as chief of staff for then-Councilman Greig Smith. Many people in the district know Englander and Jayne, Englander’s high school sweetheart who he later married, and the couple’s two daughters.
Englander stepped down at the end of 2018 to take a job with a sports and entertainment firm, abruptly leaving the council post before his term ended.
The district has few major business or commercial centers compared to other parts of the city. Local organizations, such as chambers of commerce, churches and the YMCA, play big roles in the community, and council members are well-known by residents.
A Northridge youth center is named after Smith. There’s also Holleigh Bernson Memorial Park in Porter Ranch, dedicated to the late daughter of another former councilman.
Down the street in Porter Ranch, developer Toll Brothers is building a massive new residential community and, in 2018, unveiled plans for an “Englander Pavilion” on the site. The developer didn’t return a call Wednesday about the status of the park.
At Belgium Waffle Haus in Granada Hills on Tuesday, Jill Siciliano listened wide-eyed as her friend explained the allegations facing Englander after a reporter approached the pair to ask about the scandal. Siciliano’s friend ticked off the details, which allegedly include perks of $24,000 for alcohol at a nightclub and $10,000 in cash.
“Wow,” said Siciliano, who lives in Chatsworth. “Oh my gosh.”
“The whole story, you couldn’t write it!” said the friend, who declined to give her name. “It’s like a movie!”
Englander pleaded not guilty this week.
Englander’s attorney, Janet Levine, said in a statement this week that her client 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.
Decades ago, a onetime councilman who represented the district, John P. Cassidy, was questioned in a probe focused on city contracts, campaign donations and zoning matters. He was never charged. But the broader investigation sent another former councilman, Thomas D. Shepard, to prison after he was convicted in 1969 of accepting a $11,000 bribe in connection with rezoning of 7 acres in Canoga Park.
By some measures, Englander positioned himself as a moral compass on corruption. He introduced a motion in 2014 to change city rules so that any employee convicted of a felony involving their city job would be required to forfeit their pension.
He sought the new rule after a building inspector sentenced to prison in an FBI corruption case was set to continue to receive his yearly pension of more than $72,000. Online city records show that Englander’s motion was never heard before the council.
Some residents weren’t ready to judge Englander on Tuesday, even as they seemed awestruck by his alleged behavior.
“He’s only been accused,” said Chatsworth resident Wayne Jones, who was reading about the indictments at the cafe at Shepherd of the Hills church. He called the allegation of using an escort service “over the top.”
Clad in a cowboy hat and flannel shirt, Jones said his equestrian club is regularly visited by local politicians. Englander rode with the group several times, according to social media posts.
“He seemed like such a straight arrow,” Jones said.
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