Seeking access to developers, businessman worked to ‘groom’ L.A. officials, prosecutors say
The businessman who allegedly plied Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander with cash, an escort and a lavish night out in Las Vegas to gain access to real estate developers also used his largess to “groom and cultivate” other city officials, including at least one other council member, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
Englander, who left the council in 2018, made his first appearance in front of U.S. District Judge John F. Walter since his Monday arrest on charges he lied to investigators and obstructed justice by telling the businessman to do the same.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Mack Jenkins provided new details of the government’s case against Englander and how it is linked to a larger, ongoing investigation into corruption at City Hall.
Prosecutors have concealed the identity of the businessman, citing the ongoing investigation. However, during the hourlong hearing, Jenkins said the man — identified in Englander’s indictment as “Businessperson A” — operated two companies, one that sold cabinetry and another that sold electronic equipment used in homes.
Businessperson A, Jenkins said, wanted to sell his products to developers. He decided the best way to get to those developers was to pay council members and city officials, the prosecutor said.
“When it’s a billion-dollar project in downtown Los Angeles, that’s a lot of cabinets,” Jenkins said.
Englander’s attorney, Janet I. Levine, declined to comment.
Jenkins told the judge that Englander, 49, stated on a disclosure form that he filed with the city’s Ethics Commission that he had received gifts worth $250 from Businessperson A.
The Times obtained a copy of that form. On it, Englander said he had received $250 worth of food and beverages on June 1, 2017, from a man named Andrew Wang. It is the only gift of that amount on the form, and the indictment against Englander states he traveled to Las Vegas with Businessperson A “on or about June 1, 2017.”
Wang did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment. An office in Montclair that Wang listed in state records as the address for several of his businesses was locked Thursday afternoon. No one answered when a reporter pressed a door buzzer and knocked.
People familiar with Wang’s business dealings said he sold products that match the description Jenkins gave of Businessperson A’s companies in court Thursday.
In a showroom on the 28th floor of an office tower in downtown Los Angeles, Wang displayed home electronics, cabinetry and other home furnishings, according to two people who visited the space in recent years.
Wang was trying to sell the products to developers who were constructing buildings downtown and in other parts of the city, said one of the people, who went to the showroom on multiple occasions.
Wang’s “smart home” electronics allowed customers to use their phones to perform such tasks as adjusting a room’s air conditioning, lowering window blinds and turning on lighting, said the person, who asked to remain unnamed to avoid being incorrectly linked to a criminal case.
The showroom “was like different rooms you would see in a home. There was a living room setup, a kitchen setup. You could demo some of the technology, see how it would work,” said the second person, who toured the space in 2017.
The indictment against Englander said that at one point in 2018, the then-councilman agreed to tour a showroom run by Businessperson A. The document did not provide the location of the showroom.
A Times reporter went to the office tower Wednesday and was told by a security guard that NextData Automation, the company used to market the home technology products, is no longer in the building.
Englander’s gift report gives a Diamond Bar address for Wang; it matches that of a political donor who appears in Englander contribution records as Andy Wang. In turn, Wang is listed in state records as the chief executive of several companies in Montclair, including NextData Automation.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors described how Englander, one of his aides, a lobbyist, a staffer to another council member and a developer traveled to Las Vegas on a commercial flight with Businessperson A.
Businessperson A provided Englander with a hotel room, perks reserved for high rollers and an escort, according to the indictment. He also paid a $24,000 liquor tab the group ran up while at a nightclub, the indictment says.
In a bathroom in the Las Vegas hotel, Businessperson A allegedly gave Englander an envelope with $10,000 in cash, according to the indictment. The pair met again later that month in a bathroom at a casino resort near Palm Springs, where Businessperson A allegedly gave the councilman another $5,000 in cash, the indictment states.
A week later, Englander arranged for Businessperson A to meet with a real estate developer over lunch, prosecutors said.
Following the lunch, Jenkins said, Businessperson A tried to sell the developer his products. Those discussions, however, fell apart after prosecutors began issuing subpoenas to the developer’s firm and other companies entangled in the broader City Hall probe, Jenkins said.
Jenkins said Thursday that Businessperson A, in his attempt to get to developers, tried to “groom and cultivate” other city officials besides Englander, including at least one other council member. He did not identify them.
FBI agents interviewed Businessperson A several weeks after the Las Vegas trip, and he eventually agreed to cooperate with the investigation, according to the indictment.
Much of the case against Englander relies on intercepted phone calls and recordings Businessperson A secretly made of conversations with the councilman, Jenkins said Thursday. In all, there are about eight hours of recordings involving Englander, Jenkins said.
The government also collected messages Englander and Businessperson A exchanged using a phone app that encrypts and automatically deletes messages. To record the messages before they disappeared, Businessperson A took photos of them using a phone given to him by FBI agents, Jenkins said.
Jenkins also told the judge he believes Englander chose to receive the cash payments in bathrooms, likely knowing the casinos did not install cameras there.
The other unnamed city officials who accompanied Englander on the Las Vegas trip are expected to testify against the former councilman if the case goes to trial, Jenkins said. He did not say whether the officials will also be charged.
Englander, who now lives in Santa Monica, is the first City Hall figure to be publicly charged in connection with a sweeping corruption probe that has delved into the worlds of L.A. politics and real estate development.
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 city officials and business figures. That warrant also sought information on Las Vegas trips.
The judge set a trial date for May 5 but said that was likely to change.
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