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Former L.A. Councilmember Jose Huizar pleads guilty in corruption case

Former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, left, arrives at the Federal Courthouse on Los Angeles
Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar, left, arrives at court Friday where he pleaded guilty to a bribery and money laundering scheme.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
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Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar pleaded guilty Friday to charges of racketeering and tax evasion, admitting that he extorted at least $1.5 million in bribes from real estate developers.

Under a plea agreement filed Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles, Huizar acknowledged that sweeping corruption allegations that he has denied for years were true.

“Are you pleading guilty because you’re in fact guilty?” Judge John F. Walter asked Huizar in court Friday morning.

“Yes, your honor,” Huizar responded.

Huizar’s unexpected capitulation caps a brutal downfall for a man who was born into poverty on a Mexican ranch, grew up in Boyle Heights, and went on to earn a master’s at Princeton and a law degree at UCLA before serving 15 years on the L.A. City Council.

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It also confirmed that pervasive graft tainted the city’s byzantine process for approving real estate projects in downtown Los Angeles in recent years.

Huizar’s deal with prosecutors came after developers were convicted of bribing him at two consecutive trials, and an array of other players at City Hall pleaded guilty to felonies.

The last major defendant in the scandal to face charges is former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, whose racketeering trial is set to start Feb. 21.

“He’s innocent, so we’re going to go to trial,” Chan’s attorney Harland Braun said.

Search warrant in L.A. corruption scandal came after Venetian casino security alerted FBI of suspicions about councilman gambling with developer

Had he gone to trial alongside Chan, Huizar was sure to face a daunting arsenal of evidence that prosecutors have amassed, including many surreptitiously recorded conversations implicating the former councilman in payoffs and money laundering.

The trial also would have been an emotional ordeal for his family. Prosecutors were set to have his wife Richelle, brother Salvador and 83-year-old mother Isidra testify — as they did at one of the developer’s trials — that they laundered some of Huizar’s bribe money.

Jose Huizar and his wife Richelle Rios at an election party.
Jose Huizar and his wife, Richelle Rios, at a March 2015 election-night celebration.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Political consultants, lobbyists and a top City Hall aide were also prepared to take the stand in exchange for leniency in their own upcoming sentencings for the crimes they admitted committing as members of Huizar’s extortion racket.

Another former council member, Mitchell Englander, pleaded guilty in a related case in 2020 and has already been released from prison.

L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested Tuesday in a federal investigation into corruption at City Hall.

A third council member, Mark Ridley-Thomas, is scheduled to go on trial in March for a bribery and fraud scheme he is accused of running when he was on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. He denies wrongdoing.

In the years leading up to his arrest n June 2020, Huizar led the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which reviews large-scale real estate development proposals. That gave Huizar enormous power over major construction projects during a boom period for downtown.

Huizar, 54, was the primary target of prosecutors in a case that unearthed extensive corruption in the city’s approval process for multiple downtown high-rise projects, all of them located in what was then his district.

One was a 77-story skyscraper that was proposed on Figueroa Street but never built. Another was a planned 20-story residential tower on Olympic Boulevard, also abandoned.

A third, so far not built, would have been near the L.A. Live entertainment complex, while a fourth is currently under construction in the Arts District.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles declined to comment on the case. Council President Paul Krekorian, in a statement, described Huizar’s offenses as “an indefensible betrayal of the public trust.”

“We should all be relieved to see that justice will now be done,” he said in a statement.

At Friday’s plea hearing, Huizar, dressed in a dark blue suit, appeared at ease as he sat at a table alongside his attorneys from the federal public defender’s office. In a hallway outside the courtroom when it ended, he gave reporters a written statement.

“I want to apologize to my family, constituents, and to the city of Los Angeles,” it said. “My actions were not acceptable, and I will accept the consequences for my actions. It is time for healing.

“My family needs some healing, and I hope that my acceptance of responsibility will allow the city to heal from the harm that my actions have caused.”

In the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to request a sentence of no more than 13 years in prison; Huizar promised not to ask for less than nine years. The sentencing before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter has not been scheduled.

FBI agents at the City Hall office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar on Nov. 7, 2018.
FBI agents execute a search warrant at the City Hall office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar on Nov. 7, 2018.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Huizar, who signed the agreement on Wednesday, admitted that he ran a criminal enterprise involving lobbyists, consultants and city officials who sought to “personally enrich themselves and their families and associates through a pay-to-play scheme within the city.”

Officials “extracted financial benefits from developers” in exchange for committee votes and other government acts, the agreement said.

Huizar and others solicited or took cash, consulting fees, casino gambling chips, loans, political contributions, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, spa visits, concert tickets and prostitution services, the former councilman acknowledged.

Huizar spent two decades in political office, joining the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001, then winning a City Council seat four years later.

He replaced then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an Eastside council district that included Boyle Heights, El Sereno and other areas.

In 2012, as part of the redistricting process, the council shifted the vast majority of downtown into Huizar’s district, a move that suddenly gave him huge say over some of the biggest projects in Los Angeles.

His power grew even more once he was tapped to lead the council’s planning and land use panel, which serves as a gatekeeper for large-scale real estate projects citywide.

Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State, Los Angeles, said Huizar had a “choir boy image” when he ran for school board, but in the end “wound up serving himself.”

“It’s a horrible story,” Regalado said, adding: “He went from the light to the dark.”

In one of the schemes, the developer who proposed the 77-story skyscraper provided $600,000 in collateral to help Huizar secure a loan. He used the money to quietly settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his former aides.

Those funds arrived just as Huizar was gearing up for reelection, eliminating what otherwise would have been a huge campaign issue.

Huizar stopped making payments on the loan in 2018, weeks after investigators searched his home and offices, in effect pocketing most of the money.

In another scheme, developer Dae Yong Lee agreed to provide Huizar, one of his aides and a go-between a $500,000 cash bribe to ensure city approval of his 232-unit apartment project, Huizar admitted.

At the time, construction trade unions had filed a challenge against the 20-story tower, but Huizar took the developer’s side and got the project approved.

Later, Huizar pressed his aide, George Esparza, to hand over $200,000 in bribe money during a bathroom conversation that was secretly recorded.

“I’m gonna need money,” Huizar told Esparza. “Um, that is mine, right? That is mine.”

In the plea agreement, Huizar admitted he was referring to the $200,000 bribe during that exchange.


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