L.A.'s politicians took his campaign donations. Then he admitted arranging a bribe
Long before he admitted arranging a $500,000 bribe for a council member, Justin Kim was known at Los Angeles City Hall for bringing in a different kind of funding: campaign donations.
Kim, his wife and his real estate appraisal company gave at least $66,100 over the past two decades to city candidates and office holders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti and a majority of the council’s members. The Mar Vista resident also raised money for politicians, hosting fundraisers and asking donors — many of them Korean American business owners — to contribute.
Kim, a former city commissioner, agreed last month to plead guilty to a felony bribery charge. Now, after receiving questions from The Times about his donations, some elected officials have begun giving back at least a portion of the money Kim gave to their campaigns and office holder accounts.
City Atty. Mike Feuer, now running for mayor, returned a $1,000 donation he received in 2014 from a firm headed by Kim. He also gave back another $12,000 that Kim raised for him that same year from other donors.
“There is no indication any of these donations is problematic, but in an abundance of caution Mr. Feuer has instructed any donation possibly associated with Mr. Kim be returned,” his campaign consultant John Shallman said.
Kim could not be reached, and his lawyer did not respond to inquiries from The Times.
The bribery case, and the contributions that Kim raised and donated, are likely to be a major issue for candidates in the 2022 election, said political strategist Doug Herman.
The federal probe into City Hall involves not only Kim, but also former Councilman Mitchell Englander, who agreed to plead guilty to engaging in a scheme to deceive the FBI, and Councilman Jose Huizar, whose home and offices were raided by investigators in 2018.
“You don’t have FBI investigations that take out sitting elected officials and then have no ramifications in upcoming elections. It just doesn’t happen that way,” said Herman, who does not currently have any clients seeking city office.
Herman argued the best move, politically, would be to give the money to charity instead of returning it to Kim.
Some officials are doing that. Councilman Curren Price, who faces reelection in 2022, is planning to donate $2,600 — the amount he received from Kim’s company and Kim’s wife — to a fund that assists workers, said Angelina Valencia, an aide to the councilman.
Price is still trying to determine whether Kim personally raised any money for him at a fundraising event that Kim co-hosted in 2018 at the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, Valencia said. If Kim did, Price will also donate the equivalent amount to charity, she said.
Feuer and seven other L.A. city elected officials said they cannot return some — or in a few cases, all — of the money to Kim, his wife or his company because the committees that took in the donations have been shut down.
Kim, his company and his wife gave $5,000 to Councilman Gil Cedillo between 2011 and 2017. Cedillo cannot give back any of those funds, said spokesman Conrado TerrazasCross, since the committees involved have been closed or the money is not available.
Kim also co-hosted fundraisers for Cedillo’s reelection campaign in 2016 and 2017, TerrazasCross said. He did not address how much money had been raised at the two events, but said those funds also cannot be returned.
“From what we know, these contributions were ethical,” TerrazasCross said.
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell has returned $3,000 that he received from Kim, his company and his wife, according to his spokesman Tony Arranaga — the bulk of such donations he received.
Arranaga said O’Farrell is returning or donating funds from people identified by The Times as being linked to the FBI probe. At this point, he is not sending back money that other donors gave at a Kim fundraiser in 2017.
“We will return other contributions when there is cause to do so,” Arranaga said.
Political consultant Dermot Givens, who is not currently representing any city candidates, said it makes sense for elected officials to send back donations from Kim himself to deter campaign attacks. But Givens argued the money raised by Kim from other donors won’t be politically damaging unless those contributors are also charged in the corruption probe.
“You’re not going to lose any votes over it,” he said.
Kim, 53, had been heavily involved in L.A. politics, meeting with council members and serving as a political appointee himself.
In 2009, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put him on a regional planning commission responsible for smaller projects in downtown, Hollywood and Koreatown. Two years later, Villaraigosa reassigned him to the citywide planning commission, which reviews some of the largest developments in the city.
Last month, Kim signed a plea agreement admitting that he served as a conduit for a bribe, picking up a paper bag filled with $400,000 and delivering at least a portion to a council member’s staffer.
Although prosecutors did not identify the politician who was supposed to receive the alleged bribe, key details in their filing make clear that it is Councilman Jose Huizar. A lawyer for Huizar declined to comment on the case or say whether he would return at least $6,150 in political donations from Kim, Kim’s company and Kim’s wife.
Councilman Herb Wesson, who is running for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors, received at least $4,300 in donations for his city political accounts from Kim, his company and his wife. A Wesson spokesman said the three most recent donations, or $2,100, would be returned.
Representatives of Garcetti and Councilman Paul Krekorian said they cannot return some of their Kim donations, but would donate a portion of the money they had received to charity. Garcetti is giving $2,000 to the United Way, while Krekorian is sending $700 to the watchdog group California Common Cause.
Council President Nury Martinez and Councilman Joe Buscaino are sending all the money they received to efforts to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Councilwoman Martinez is repulsed that Justin Kim helped facilitate bribes, and believes that anyone involved must be held accountable,” her campaign consultant Roy Behr said.
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