Fundraiser pleads guilty in L.A. City Hall corruption case
A political operative pleaded guilty to bribery Wednesday, admitting he helped a real estate developer pay off a Los Angeles City Council member for help with a major development project.
The guilty plea by Justin Jangwoo Kim, 53, is the latest turn in an on-going investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office into pay-to-play schemes and other corruption in City Hall.
At a hearing Wednesday, which U.S. District Judge John F. Walter conducted over videoconference, Kim listened as a prosecutor read a lengthy narrative detailing his role in the bribery scheme. When it was over, Walter asked whether Kim had done all the things the government claimed.
“Yes, I did, your honor,” Kim replied.
A real estate appraiser and consultant, Kim was a top fundraiser for a City Council member whom federal prosecutors have referred to as “Councilmember A” in court filings against Kim and others charged in the case.
As L.A. officials battle the coronavirus pandemic, a corruption scandal has fueled mistrust in City Hall.
Many details included in the court records have identified the council member as Jose Huizar, who served on a council committee that handles real estate projects and and whose offices and home were raided by FBI agents in 2018. Huizar has not been charged with a crime in the case.
The bribery scheme involving Kim began in the summer of 2016, when a labor organization challenged a developer’s plans to build a large residential project in the council member’s district. The challenge threatened to derail the project as it was making its way through the city’s approval process, prosecutors said.
Kim, who prosecutors said was a major fundraiser for the council member, admitted to helping to negotiate and carry out a $500,000 payment the developer paid in exchange for help scuttling the labor group’s efforts. The name of the developer has not been made public.
The council member allegedly sought the help of a lobbyist, who successfully convinced the labor group to drop its appeal of the project, according to court records. Court records show Kim kept more than $100,000 of the bribe money for himself, although prosecutors did not specify the amount.
With investigators bearing down on him, the council member allegedly instructed an aide to hold on to part of his share of the bribe money, according to court filings. It is unknown whether the council member ever received any of the money.
Kim is one of four people now charged in the case.
Former councilman Mitchell Englander has agreed to plead guilty to charges that he tried to obstruct an investigation into payments and other gifts he allegedly received from another developer. And a former aide to Huizar, George Esparza, and a real estate consultant, George Chiang, have agreed to plead guilty to charges stemming from allegations they conspired with the council member on plans to extract illicit payments from estate developers.
Kim is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, although prosecutors have agreed to seek leniency from the judge in exchange for Kim’s cooperation.
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