Englander sentenced to 14 months in prison in L.A. City Hall corruption case
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander was sentenced Monday to 14 months in prison for lying to federal authorities about his dealings with a businessman who provided him $15,000 in secret cash payments and a debauched night in Las Vegas.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter said arrogance and greed drove Englander to “brazenly” cover up his misconduct for more than a year. He rejected Englander’s explanation that he’d simply been trying to protect his reputation, saying the former councilman tampered with a witness and obstructed a federal investigation.
“There’s simply no adequate explanation as to how he totally lost his moral compass and committed this crime,” Walter said at a hearing on Zoom. He imposed a $15,000 fine — the amount contained in the envelopes Englander accepted in casino restrooms.
Englander, 50, is the first person to be sentenced in a sprawling federal investigation into corruption at Los Angeles City Hall. He pleaded guilty in July to scheming to falsify material facts, a felony.
As part of his plea deal, Englander admitted lying to prosecutors and FBI agents during three interviews in 2017 and 2018 about his interactions with the unnamed businessman. After the Vegas trip, the businessman became a government informant and secretly recorded conversations with the former councilman.
Englander, dressed in a dark suit and wearing a white mask at a conference table next to his lawyer Monday, apologized to his wife, daughters, former constituents and the FBI. He said he took full responsibility for his crime, which had “shattered” his reputation.
“I’ve hurt the very people I love the most,” he said.
Monday’s sentencing marked a precipitous fall for a politician who once held the council’s No. 2 leadership post and served on powerful committees overseeing real estate development, public safety and the city budget.
Former Councilman Greig Smith, who employed Englander from 2003 to 2011, said the judge’s sentence was “absolutely appropriate.”
“Even though there’s nobody hurt or personally damaged by this, it’s something that destroyed confidence in government,” he said in an interview.
The charges include obstructing an FBI investigation into him favors from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs.
At the center of the ongoing investigation is former Councilman Jose Huizar, who is awaiting trial on bribery, racketeering and other charges on allegations of shaking down developers seeking approval for major downtown building projects. Also facing charges is Raymond Chan, a former deputy mayor to Mayor Eric Garcetti. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Huizar’s former special assistant, George Esparza, along with a lobbyist and two real estate consultants, have pleaded guilty to federal crimes in the alleged pay-to-play schemes. Esparza admitted receiving lavish perks — trips to Vegas and Australia, expensive meals and escort services — from a developer looking to build a 77-story skyscraper, while also accepting $8,000 to $10,000 per month from the businessman who provided Englander with cash.
The Englander case originated with a wiretap that captured Huizar and Esparza discussing the offering of prostitutes to Englander and Esparza in Las Vegas, Assistant U.S. Atty. Mack Jenkins told the judge Monday.
“That certainly got Englander on our radar,” Jenkins said.
Prosecutors recommended that Englander serve two years in prison and pay a $45,000 fine. Englander’s lawyer, Janet I. Levine, urged the judge to adopt the more lenient recommendation from probation officials — no prison time and a $9,500 fine. His conviction, she argued, will cause him lifelong trouble, from finding work to buying a home.
“His obituary will begin with this crime,” Levine said. “It will follow him wherever he goes.”
Supporters of Englander — family members, friends, former colleagues and others — also asked the judge for mercy, saying he is a good father with a history of public service. One letter came from actor Sean Penn, who described how he became friends with Englander in the wake of the Woolsey fire in 2018.
“I know none of the details of Mitch’s case,” Penn wrote. “Only that he is contrite and embarrassed.”
The judge said he’d received an “overwhelming” number of letters vouching for Englander and was most swayed by the ones from his wife, Jayne, and daughters, Lauren and Lindsey. He also recognized Englander had suffered hardship as a child, including his father’s abandonment of the family and a bout of homelessness.
Englander told the court he had endured “horrific tragedies.”
“This is by far the worst,” he said. “Because I created it.”
Englander served on the council from 2011 to 2018, representing such northwest San Fernando Valley neighborhoods as Chatsworth, Northridge, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills. He was the council’s lone Republican when he resigned to take a job at Oak View Group, a sports and entertainment firm. At the time, he did not reveal he was facing a criminal investigation.
Known at City Hall for his tart, sometimes dismissive remarks, Englander was more conservative than most of his colleagues. He cast the sole vote against raising the city’s minimum wage in 2015. A reserve police officer, Englander supported body cameras for cops, a crackdown on illegal street racing and a proposal to force city officials to forfeit their pensions if they were found guilty of felonies.
In the criminal case, Englander admitted to lying repeatedly about his interactions with a businessman peddling home electronics to adjust heating, lighting and window shades from a phone. The businessman wanted Englander to introduce him to developers who might buy his products, prosecutors said.
In June 2017, the businessman spent tens of thousands of dollars on Las Vegas hotel rooms, meals, nightclub bar tabs and escorts for Englander and several others, court records show. Councilman John Lee, who succeeded Englander in 2019 and was his former chief of staff, confirmed last year that he went on the trip.
The businessman also sent an escort to Englander’s hotel room, but did not know whether he accepted her services, according to the plea agreement.
Englander admitted taking $10,000 in cash in Las Vegas from the businessman, then $5,000 from him a few weeks later at the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa near Palm Springs. The absence of cameras in the restrooms led him to think he wouldn’t get caught, prosecutors said.
Days later, Englander invited the businessman to a lunch with a developer so he could pitch his home technology products, prosecutors said.
L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested Tuesday in a federal investigation into corruption at City Hall.
Englander learned of the FBI investigation later that summer. He then used an encrypted messaging app to tell the businessman he wanted to reimburse some of the Las Vegas expenses, court records show.
The businessman used an FBI phone to snap photos of encrypted texts sent by Englander before the messaging app automatically deleted them, prosecutors said.
Shortly after the FBI asked Englander to come in for an interview, he sent the businessman a check that he back-dated to look as if it had been paid before he’d heard from the FBI, Englander admitted in his guilty plea.
He went on to lie in all three of his interviews with FBI agents. Englander falsely stated that he hadn’t told the businessman about the investigation. He also lied when he said he received no benefits other than a hotel room, dinner and drinks, omitting the cash and the offer of escort services, Englander acknowledged in the plea agreement.
In secretly recorded conversations, Englander urged the businessman not to tell the FBI anything about the cash or the “massage lady” sent to his room. He also instructed him not to say anything about using the disappearing-message app, the plea deal shows.
Englander must surrender June 1 to begin his sentence at the federal prison in Lompoc. However, the judge said, that date could be postponed if there are safety issues stemming from COVID-19.
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