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L.A. to pay out $150,000 over lawsuit by former aide to Jose Huizar

Then-Councilman Jose Huizar  in 2016.
Former Councilman Jose Huizar, shown in 2016, is facing federal charges that include bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles will pay up to $150,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former aide who alleged he was fired after speaking up about possible crimes committed by then-Councilman Jose Huizar.

Council members approved the payment on a 13-1 vote, with Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez casting the dissenting vote. The decision marks the third payout made by the city to settle retaliation suits filed by former staffers for Huizar, who is now facing federal charges that include bribery, racketeering and money laundering.

The settlement involving former staffer Jesse Leon brings L.A.'s total tab for such lawsuits to $350,000. Huizar, who was suspended from the council last year, has pleaded not guilty in the sprawling pay-to-play case.

In his lawsuit, Leon said he told federal agents that he believed Huizar would use “extortionist tactics” to pressure cannabis businesses seeking to do business in his district for money or political donations, “the same tactics that many suspected he had been undertaking with real estate developers.”

Leon alleged he received a termination letter after Huizar learned that he had spoken to investigators about his concerns. He was subsequently put on paid leave and ultimately terminated several months later in March 2020.

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Huizar denied the allegations when Leon first filed a legal claim against the city in 2019. At the time, Huizar countered that Leon had been confronted with questions about trying to get a cannabis license while advising the councilman on cannabis regulations — a financial conflict of interest, Huizar said.

“This is an obvious attempt by Jesse to deflect from his unethical behavior,” Huizar said in a statement.

Huizar has a June 22 trial date in the case, which is the a result of a federal investigation into alleged widespread corruption at Los Angeles City Hall.

Leon submitted an application to the Department of Cannabis Regulation to be vetted as a potential applicant for its “social equity” program, which aims to assist marijuana entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. He did not ultimately file an application to run a cannabis business, according to the agency.

“By making decisions for private advantage and personal gain, you compromised the integrity of your position,” a city personnel officer told Leon in a letter last year.

The personnel officer also chided Leon for having “misrepresented” the advice he got after contacting the Ethics Commission. In his lawsuit, Leon said he was initially advised by the Ethics Commission that there was no conflict of interest in him being assessed for the program, a preliminary step to be eligible to apply in the future.

Leon said the city attorney’s office disagreed and told Leon to “wall himself off” from cannabis projects in the council office, then informed Huizar, according to the lawsuit.

Rodriguez, the council member who voted Wednesday against the payout, did so because she believed that “Jesse Leon was manipulating the circumstances for his benefit while violating ethics rules,” her spokeswoman Laura McKinney said.

Leon also alleged that Huizar had targeted him because the councilman believed Leon had helped orchestrate two other lawsuits filed by former Huizar staffers Pauline Medina and Mayra Alvarez, who both settled their discrimination suits against the city last year. L.A. agreed to pay out $200,000 total to resolve those two cases.

In his lawsuit, Leon said he had voiced concerns to the FBI, the city attorney’s office and the Ethics Commission about several issues in addition to Huizar’s alleged “pay-to-play” approach to cannabis businesses, including an alleged affair between Huizar and an aide, and having to work on “campaign activities” for Huizar’s wife during work hours.

Many of the allegations reiterate those made by Medina and Alvarez in their lawsuits. Huizar denied those claims when the two women filed their lawsuits, calling them “crazy allegations.”

Although the city will pay out money to settle the Leon case, the former aide dismissed his claims against Huizar himself in the same case last year. His attorney Terrence Jones said that they decided to do so after Huizar was indicted in the federal probe last summer, aiming to prevent their civil case from being held up by his criminal prosecution.

The claims made by Leon surrounding cannabis businesses were tied to a process that allows the City Council to lift caps on the number of marijuana shops that can operate in each geographic area. Critics have raised concerns that the “public convenience or necessity” process could pave the way for those with political connections to snag coveted sites.

Council members are just beginning to review such requests now. As of this week, nearly two out of three requests forwarded to the council are for sites in the downtown district once represented by Huizar, who was succeeded by Councilman Kevin de León. Those businesses need council approval to operate at their chosen sites.


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