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Cash, casinos and a sexual harassment payout: Former Huizar aide agrees to plead guilty

L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar
A former aide to L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar, above, has agreed to plead guilty in the federal “pay-to-play” corruption probe at City Hall, prosecutors said.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

For years, George Esparza was known as one of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar’s closest aides, driving him around town, attending to him at events and serving as his special assistant.

On Wednesday, the 33-year-old former Huizar staffer agreed to plead guilty in the ongoing corruption investigation at City Hall, becoming the closest associate of the councilman so far to be snared in the federal “pay-to-play” probe.

In a deal with prosecutors, Esparza will admit to participating in an audacious scheme to hit up real estate developers for cash, luxurious trips, political contributions and other bribes in exchange for help with major development projects, court records show. He will plead guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge.

Esparza is the fourth person to agree to plead guilty in the sprawling investigation. The machinations carried out by Esparza and others amounted to a criminal enterprise, according to prosecutors who charged him under a law used to combat organized crime syndicates.

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In charge of the operation, prosecutors allege, was Esparza’s boss — a councilman who is not named in court records but is known to be Huizar based on a host of details in federal filings. Prosecutors said the councilman received more than $1 million worth of bribes from just one of the real estate developers doing business in his district.

A lawyer for Esparza did not respond to a request for comment. Esparza has been working in recent years as chief of staff to Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), who also did not respond to The Times’ inquiries.

Huizar’s attorney declined to comment. The councilman, whose district stretches from downtown to Eagle Rock, has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

Under the terms of the plea deal, Esparza will cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Prosecutors already have won plea deals from a former City Council member, a political fundraiser and a real estate consultant, who admitted to participating in illicit activities that involved either Huizar or others in his orbit.

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Esparza, who worked as a special assistant to Huizar from 2013 to 2018, featured in those allegations and others that prosecutors detailed in their court filings Wednesday.

In one, Esparza and the councilman enriched themselves with the largesse from the billionaire head of a major Chinese real estate company, who paid more than $1 million in bribes in exchange for help clearing the way for a 77-story skyscraper the company wanted to build downtown, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Details on that project, contained in federal filings, match up with a development proposed by Shenzhen New World Group, a Chinese company that sought to build a 77-story tower on Figueroa Street. The Times was unable to immediately reach a representative of the developer for comment.

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Esparza told investigators that between 2014 and 2018, the developer provided him and his boss free flights on private jets, gambling chips, expensive meals and other perks during more than a dozen trips to casinos in Las Vegas, court records show. In 2016, the developer also flew the pair to Australia for another gambling trip.

The developer shelled out more than $850,000 for the trips, providing more than $200,000 in chips to the councilman, prosecutors alleged in court records.

In addition, Esparza acknowledged he had helped facilitate a deal in which the same developer helped the councilman secure a $570,000 loan — money he used in 2014 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former aide. That same year, Huizar was facing a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former aide, which was settled under terms that were kept confidential.

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In exchange for the financial benefits, the councilman “routinely assisted” the developer over the years, drawing up a City Hall resolution praising the company’s chairman in 2014, prosecutors said. The 77-story project on Figueroa Street has been on hold for years and has not received a final vote, according to planning officials.

The federal corruption investigation has rocked Los Angeles City Hall.
( Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)

Esparza also admitted to helping the councilman, who chaired a powerful committee that oversaw major real estate projects, to shake down developers for contributions to a political action committee meant to assist a relative who was running to replace the councilman.

Details in federal filings make clear that prosecutors are referring to Richelle Huizar, the wife of the councilman, who ran briefly for his seat in 2018. Richelle Huizar has not been named in the filings or charged with a crime. Her attorney declined to comment Wednesday.

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When businesses did not play ball with the councilman, there were consequences, according to federal prosecutors. During one phone call, Esparza complained that a developer had not come through with certain “commitments.”

“Why even be helpful to them…. We are not going to help them,” he said, according to the federal filing.

The sweeping case has led to three other plea deals: In March, former City Councilman Mitchell Englander agreed to plead guilty to scheming to falsify facts in a probe of his acceptance of envelopes of cash and other gifts. Former City Planning Commissioner Justin Jangwoo Kim agreed to plead guilty to bribery in a case involving a box containing $200,000 in cash.

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In Wednesday’s filing, prosecutors identified Esparza as the council aide who showed up at his boss’ home with the box of cash.

This month, real estate consultant George Chiang agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a scheme in which a Chinese real estate company bribed a council member in exchange for help on a major development project. Details in that filing also make clear prosecutors were referring to Huizar.

Esparza told The Times last year that he had stopped working for the councilman because he was “profoundly uncomfortable” with the councilman’s conduct.

“So I got out before I became collateral damage,” he said in a statement at the time.

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After resigning from his City Hall post, Esparza secured a job with Carrillo, earning around $117,000 annually, according to state records from this year.

While working as Carrillo’s chief of staff, Esparza and his boss were reprimanded by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for engaging in inappropriate workplace conduct. Rendon cited allegations that Esparza had made “inappropriate sexual comments.”

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Cash, casinos and a sexual harassment payout: former Huizar aide pleads guilty.

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