L.A. Councilman Huizar, embroiled in FBI probe, faces calls from colleagues to step down

L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez has asked Councilman Jose Huizar, shown, to stop attending council meetings until there is "legal clarity" on the federal corruption investigation at City Hall.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Days after federal prosecutors described a Los Angeles City Council member as the ringleader of a “criminal enterprise,” a chorus of public officials called on Councilman Jose Huizar to resign.

“Whatever ends up happening to Jose Huizar on the legal front, it is blatantly obvious he has compromised his ability to represent his district and should step down immediately,” Councilman Joe Buscaino said Friday.

Huizar, who has been representing an Eastside district since 2005, has not been arrested or publicly charged with a crime. But federal prosecutors have made clear that he is the unnamed L.A. City Council member embroiled in their ongoing corruption probe of City Hall, providing biographical information in their court filings that matches Huizar.


Buscaino was joined in his calls Friday by City Controller Ron Galperin and Councilmen Paul Krekorian, David Ryu and Bob Blumenfield. Said Blumenfield: “My blood boils as I learn more details about this horrific tale of corruption.”

As of Friday afternoon, Council President Nury Martinez had stopped short of asking Huizar to resign but instead asked the councilman to stop attending council meetings and casting votes until there is “legal clarity” on the federal probe, according to her chief of staff, Ackley Padilla. Mayor Eric Garcetti later said he supported Martinez’s request.

Huizar responded Friday with a statement that he would “respect the council president’s wishes that I limit my participation in council while working to meet the needs of my district” but did not explain how he would do so, saying through a spokeswoman that the details were still being worked out.

As L.A. officials battle the coronavirus pandemic, a corruption scandal has fueled mistrust in City Hall.

Huizar said he didn’t want to be a “distraction” to the council’s work but intends to continue carrying out his duties to “protect the safety and economic well-being of the residents of Los Angeles” during the COVID-19 crisis.

The push for Huizar to skip meetings or step down entirely comes after a drumbeat of new revelations in the federal probe. Real estate consultant George Chiang agreed this week to plead guilty to participating in a criminal scheme in which Chinese real estate developers allegedly bribed a council member in exchange for help on a hotel-and-residential project. The plea deal described the unnamed council member as the leader of a broader “criminal enterprise.”

In March, real estate appraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim admitted to helping arrange a $500,000 bribe intended for a council member to smooth the way for another development project. In both cases, key details in the federal filings point to Huizar, whose attorneys have repeatedly declined to comment.

Huizar had long been known to be under federal investigation — FBI agents raided his home and offices in 2018 — but the filings revealed new details about the allegations involved in the case.

The councilman was stripped of many committee assignments shortly after the raids, including the powerful panel that vets real estate developments, but has continued to attend council meetings, draft proposals and cast votes.

Until recently, council members had remained largely silent about the ongoing investigation. Some federal probes involving city officials — including an investigation involving donors to Martinez — have not resulted in charges in the past, making some reluctant to jump to conclusions based merely on the existence of an investigation.

But the specific allegations now laid out by federal prosecutors, along with public disgust at the claims, appear to have shifted the calculus for some council members. Blumenfield said the latest filings were the catalyst for him, adding that it was a “big problem” for the public to be left questioning the integrity of council decisions as the city faces a crisis.

Krekorian said in a statement that although he recognized that no criminal charges had been filed against Huizar, it was clear that he was the councilman referenced in the federal filings, and therefore, Angelenos “can no longer have confidence that council member Huizar is representing their interests fairly and honestly, and with his full attention.”

Some residents balked at the push for Huizar to pull back from the council.

Monica Alcaraz, a community activist who lives in Highland Park, said Martinez should not have demanded that Huizar stop participating in council meetings, since he has not been charged or given the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

Residents in Huizar’s Eastside district need him to continue casting votes on such issues as homelessness, evictions and protections for vulnerable renters, Alcaraz said.

“To not have somebody representing our needs is not acceptable,” she added.

But Gerren Kelsaw, a founder of the downtown advocacy group DTLA Strong, said that considering the allegations of “brazen” misconduct in the court documents, Huizar should not only stop going to council meetings but should resign.

Although Huizar should have the opportunity to fight the allegations, “it’s clear that he cannot function for the downtown neighborhood in the way we need him to,” said Kelsaw, who said he was speaking for himself and not his organization. “Are we going to have a dearth of leadership right now because he wants to hang onto the job?”

Huizar is scheduled to step down at the end of the year due to term limits. Former State Sen. Kevin de Leon has already won the election to replace him but is not set to be sworn in until December.

The City Charter, which serves as the governing document for Los Angeles City Hall, allows a council member to be suspended if they are pending criminal trial for “violation of official duties.”

The council can also publicly rebuke one of its members. Under the charter, the council can pass a resolution of “censure” with respect to any council member “whose actions constitute a gross failure to meet such high standards, even if the action does not constitute a ground for removal from office under the charter.”

Asked whether Huizar should step down or take a leave of absence in light of the recent Department of Justice filings, City Atty. Mike Feuer, who is running for Los Angeles mayor, said Friday that if any council member is indicted, “the right thing to do would be to step down.”

The city attorney’s office was raided by FBI agents last summer as part of a separate investigation involving the Department of Water and Power. No one has been publicly charged in that investigation.

A failure to attend council meetings could become a legal issue. Under the charter, an elected office can become vacant when the incumbent “has ceased to discharge the duties of the office for 90 consecutive days, except when prevented by illness, injury or other reasonable cause.”

Council rules also state that members shall attend regular and special meetings unless they are sick or have been granted a leave of absence.