Former councilman Jose Huizar pleads not guilty to bribery, other charges

Former Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar has pleaded not guilty to bribery and other federal charges in a racketeering indictment alleging he took cash and other benefits from developers who sought favorable treatment on pending real estate development projects.

Huizar, 52, of Boyle Heights, has a June 22 trial date in the case, which is the result of a federal investigation into alleged widespread corruption at Los Angeles City Hall that has also ensnared political operatives, lobbyists and the former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

A message seeking comment from Huizar’s federal public defense attorney was not immediately answered.

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Huizar was charged in July in a 34-count indictment that alleged a conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in which he’s accused of agreeing to accept at least $1.5 million in illicit financial benefits. The racketeering charge alleges 402 overt acts that Huizar and his co-conspirators are accused of committing to further their criminal enterprise, including bribery, honest services fraud, and money laundering.

A 41-count superseding indictment unsealed last month adds 50 overt acts to the RICO conspiracy count. The racketeering count also charges Raymond Chan, who after serving as the general manager of the Department of Building and Safety became the city’s deputy mayor of economic development.

In addition to the RICO conspiracy charge, the indictment outlines 14 counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts each of honest services mail fraud and making false statements to federal law enforcement, four counts of traveling interstate in aid of racketeering, nine counts of bribery, five counts of money laundering, and one count each of tax evasion, structuring cash deposits to conceal bribes, making a false statement to a financial institution and alteration of records in a federal investigation. Each of the defendants is charged in various counts.

“The scope of corruption outlined in this indictment is staggering,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said last week when Chan was charged.

“As the indictment alleges, Huizar, Chan and their network of associates repeatedly violated the public trust by soliciting and accepting numerous cash bribes and other financial benefits, turning Huizar’s City Council seat into a money-making criminal enterprise,” Hanna said. “Powerful developers, operating through well-connected lobbyists, eagerly participated in the schemes to get preferential treatment for their downtown projects. This detailed indictment, which lays bare these backroom deals, should prompt a serious discussion as to whether significant reforms are warranted in Los Angeles city government.”

George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant, and real estate development consultant George Chiang each pleaded guilty earlier this year to participating in the RICO conspiracy. The indictment adds overt acts to the RICO conspiracy alleging that CD-14 Enterprise members — Huizar represented Council District 14 — illegally solicited political contributions by foreign nationals to help maintain the enterprise’s political power.

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Among the numerous corruption allegations, the indictment charges that Huizar illegally accepted more than $800,000 in benefits from the billionaire chairman and president of a global development company, mainly during luxury-laden gambling trips. In addition, at Huizar’s and Chan’s request, and after Huizar had helped save Chan’s city position by helping to prevent a planned merger that would have eliminated Chan’s department, Huang also provided $600,000 in collateral to fund a settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Huizar by a former CD-14 staffer, allegations that threatened his 2015 reelection campaign, according to the indictment.

At the time he allegedly provided those benefits, the Chinese developer was planning to redevelop the L.A. Grand Hotel into the tallest tower west of the Mississippi, which would require city approvals and Huizar’s help. When Chan was later interviewed by FBI agents about the lawsuit settlement, he lied about his participation in the secret payment arrangement, prosecutors allege.

Chan is also charged with multiple counts of bribery and honest services fraud for allegedly agreeing to accept, while he was deputy mayor, more than $100,000 from Chiang for official acts to benefit a development project.

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The RICO conspiracy, honest services fraud, obstruction and money laundering charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

The charge of making false statements to a financial institution has a maximum 30-year sentence, while the bribery charges each carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. The charges of tax evasion, structuring, making false statements to law enforcement, and interstate travel in aid of racketeering carry five-year maximum prison terms.

In addition to Esparza, Chiang and political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim, Morris Goldman, a longtime City Hall lobbyist, pleaded guilty to participating in a bribery scheme in which a developer agreed to make political donations in exchange for Huizar’s support of a project in the city’s Arts District.

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Sentencing hearings are scheduled on Feb. 8 for Esparza, Feb. 22 for Chiang and Kim, and Aug. 23 for Goldman.

In a separate case not tied to Huizar, former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty in July to charges of scheming to falsify material facts related to trips he took to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, during which he accepted cash and other benefits from a businessperson.

Englander’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25.

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