Former L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar sentenced to 13 years in prison in corruption case

Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar enters the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar enters the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles for sentencing on Friday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar was sentenced Friday to 13 years in prison for his role in a sprawling set of criminal schemes that involved cash payouts, casino chips at Las Vegas hotels and other bribes from developers seeking to build glittering downtown high-rises.

U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter handed down the sentence a day after receiving a letter from Huizar apologizing for his crimes. In that letter, Huizar said he had paid a huge price — losing his reputation and his ability to provide for his family, harming his children’s future and their mental health.

Walter said the 13-year sentence was needed to “engender respect” for the nation’s anti-corruption laws and acknowledge the extreme harm caused by Huizar — to his family, to his constituents, to the city and to democracy itself. Huizar, he said, had been the prime architect of a criminal enterprise that relied on bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice and other crimes to achieve its goals — enriching himself and his associates, and expanding their political power.


“He was the sole and powerful driving force” that made each of the pay-to-play schemes so successful, the judge said.

Huizar, 55, must surrender to federal authorities on April 30. Walter also ordered him to pay nearly $444,000 in restitution to the city of Los Angeles and nearly $39,000 to the IRS.

Huizar spoke only briefly in the courtroom, apologizing to his family and the city for the “damage” he had caused and relying on his lawyers to make a lengthy case for leniency. When Walter announced the sentence, he sat slightly slumped in his chair, staring at the judge. His face was expressionless.

Lawyers for Huizar had asked for no more than nine years in prison, arguing that their client racked up a lengthy list of accomplishments during his time in public office. Federal prosecutors had requested 13 years, arguing that a strong sentence would serve as a deterrent against future public corruption.

Prosecutors said Huizar monetized his government position for years, securing more than $1.5 million in cash bribes, gambling chips, luxury hotel stays, political contributions, prostitute services, expensive meals and other financial benefits from developers with projects in his downtown district.

U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada, appearing after the hearing, said Huizar’s sentence was the most substantial one yet in the federal government’s ongoing battle against corruption in L.A. Residents in Huizar’s district, which took in all or part of downtown, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and El Sereno, “deserved much better,” he said.

“The privilege of public office wasn’t enough for Jose Huizar,” said Estrada, standing outside the courthouse. “He instead chose corruption and greed. He used his power to use City Hall as his personal ATM.”


Friday’s sentencing capped a sweeping corruption inquiry that began in 2015, the year FBI agents received a tip about Huizar’s gambling activities inside a luxury casino in Las Vegas. Years later, he and a number of City Hall figures — most of them involved in the approval of residential towers or high-rise hotels — were arrested and eventually convicted of various crimes.

 Jose Huizar speaking at a 2018 news conference.
Jose Huizar speaking at a 2018 news conference.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Councilmember Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty in 2020 to giving false information to investigators after FBI agents inquired about his own Vegas trip in 2017, during which he received cash in an envelope in a casino bathroom. George Esparza, a former Huizar aide who transported liquor boxes full of cash, is awaiting sentencing on a racketeering charge.

A developer, a former lobbyist, a land-use consultant, a Chinese-based real estate company and even Huizar’s older brother, Salvador Huizar, have either pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury.

Still to come is the case of former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, who is facing bribery, racketeering and wire fraud charges. That case ended in a mistrial last year, after Chan’s lawyer suffered a medical emergency that left him unable to keep representing Chan in court.

One figure in the corruption inquiry may never face a jury. Chinese billionaire developer Wei Huang, who helped Huizar secure $600,000 to pay off a onetime aide who had accused him of sexual harassment, is on the run and considered a fugitive, according to the Department of Justice.


Here is a look at former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar and the City Hall corruption case against him.

Jan. 19, 2023

For years, Huizar headed the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which served as a critical gatekeeper for large-scale development projects across the city. In that role, Huizar wielded enormous power.

Huizar repeatedly extracted bribes — in some cases enriching himself personally, in other cases collecting campaign donations — from downtown developers eager to win city approval for their projects, according to his plea agreement.

One proposed project, later abandoned, was a 77-story hotel tower planned on Figueroa Street. Another was a 20-story residential building proposed for Olympic Boulevard. A third had been planned across from the L.A. Live entertainment complex. A fourth was a 35-story tower, now under construction, in the Arts District.

One the eve of his sentencing, Huizar filed a letter telling the judge that his weakness had forever changed his life. Huizar said that, while in office, he decided he wanted to reward himself for the sacrifices he had made.

“Shiny things were dangled in front of me and I could not resist temptation,” the former council member wrote. “The money, the fancy dinners, luxury flights. It was there for the taking and I was not strong enough to say no.”

Huizar was born in a rural village in Mexico, just a few years before his family immigrated to the U.S, settling in Boyle Heights. According to family members, his parents worked long hours at menial jobs while raising their children. Huizar overcame adversity and excelled at school, graduating from a string of top-tier colleges: UC Berkeley, then Princeton University and finally UCLA School of Law.


In 2001, Huizar was elected to a seat on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Four years later, he won a seat on the council. He was reelected to a third and final term in 2015, handily defeating former county Supervisor Gloria Molina, a veteran Eastside politician.

In their bid for leniency, Huizar’s defense team pointed out that he is a first-time offender and a father of school-age children. They pointed to his work fostering what they called the “DTLA Renaissance” — the pre-COVID pandemic real estate boom that brought foreign investment and gleaming towers to downtown. They argued that Huizar’s actions, while damaging to the public trust, were not “purposely evil.”

“If you look at the reality, he got into the job out of a longstanding desire to help,” said Charles Snyder, a deputy federal public defender, while addressing the judge.

Huizar’s friends and relatives also sought to emphasize his good deeds.

In one letter to the judge, former school board President Monica Garcia called Huizar a “trailblazing” board member who played a pivotal role in the push to build scores of new campuses. In another, Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, said Huizar has demonstrated humility and remorse.

In yet another letter, Huizar’s elderly mother, Isidra Huizar, implored the judge to show mercy, saying her son routinely helps her with her dentist, her heart doctor, her prescriptions and other medical needs.

“I don’t even want to think about life without him,” she wrote. “I beg with all my heart to you judge don’t take him away from me.”


At Friday’s hearing, Walter took note of the harm that Huizar’s actions had caused his family, particularly his mother and four children. He acknowledged that Huizar’s political career had “an incredibly sad ending.” “It’s difficult to understand why he decided to throw it all away,” the judge said at one point.

Nevertheless, Walter argued for a substantial prison sentence, saying Huizar abused his position “time and time again.” The judge said public corruption has an especially corrosive effect on society, breeding “cynicism and mistrust” in elected officials, causing the public to view government as an insider’s game.

When that happens, the judge said, citizens begin to disengage. That, in turn, threatens to destroy “the delicate fabric of democracy,” Walter said.

At this point, Huizar is not the only elected official at City Hall currently enmeshed in public corruption cases. Former Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted last year on charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud. He has filed an appeal in that case, which centers on decisions he made while serving on the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Councilmember Curren Price is facing embezzlement, perjury and conflict-of-interest charges in a case filed by Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s office. Price has declared his innocence, pleading not guilty earlier this month.

In recent weeks, Huizar’s defense lawyers tried to illustrate the environment their client faced at City Hall, saying his constituents and “constituencies” constantly sought his favor — offering gifts, delivering campaign donations and staging events on his behalf. Huizar, they said, developed personal relationships with numerous people, the kind that led to “the exchange of benefits and favors.”


“It was easy for lines to get blurred, and they did,” Huizar’s lawyers wrote. “Indeed, this was true not only for Mr. Huizar, but was and almost certainly remains true for virtually all of the elected officials in L.A. and beyond.”

That assertion drew a strong reaction from council President Paul Krekorian, who voted to suspend Huizar on the day that he was arrested in June 2020. Krekorian, in an interview, called the claim “complete rubbish.”

“His conduct was an embarrassment to the city, a betrayal of the voters and a betrayal of all of us, his former colleagues,” Krekorian said. “So to suggest that this is business as usual is utter nonsense.”