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L.A. councilman's wife was a paid fundraiser. Ex-aides say he assigned them to help

L.A. councilman's wife was a paid fundraiser. Ex-aides say he assigned them to help
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar acknowledges his wife, Richelle Huizar, at a 2015 election night event at Bishop Mora Salesian High School. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar personally asked companies that do business at City Hall to donate to a private school where his wife was working as a professional fundraiser and also assigned his staff to help with the effort, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Times.

Huizar instructed staffers to work on a yearly fundraiser for Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights, and the assignment was considered part of their job duties, according to interviews with former aides and a lawsuit filed by one.

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Huizar also sent an email to aides in 2013 identifying lobbyists, city contractors and others whom he had contacted about making a donation. In the email, Huizar said two of his staffers were assisting in the fundraising effort.

Two donors who gave to Salesian in 2015 said they were asked to do so by Huizar staffers.

During Richelle Huizar’s employment at Salesian, money came in to the school from real estate developers, billboard companies, engineering firms and others who were seeking or had received favorable votes from her husband, according to interviews with donors and documents obtained by The Times.

Legal experts said any investigation of Huizar’s actions would probably focus on whether his use of government employees to do work that benefited his wife — by carrying out tasks she was paid to do — violated criminal laws barring the use of public resources for private gain.

State law also requires elected officials to report any charitable fundraising that results in donations of $5,000 or more. Huizar, who mentioned in his 2013 email that he had secured some donations of $5,000 or more, did not file reports disclosing requests for contributions to the school, according to records kept by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

Huizar and his wife, Richelle Huizar, declined to comment after receiving written questions from The Times about their fundraising activities for Salesian, where the councilman graduated in 1986.

Bishop Mora Salesian High School's website includes a list of sponsors, including several with business before L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar in recent years, records show.
Bishop Mora Salesian High School's website includes a list of sponsors, including several with business before L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar in recent years, records show. (www.mustangsla.org)

FBI agents searched Huizar’s home and offices three weeks ago, hauling away an array of materials, including a cardboard box labeled “fundraising.”

An agency spokeswoman has declined to say what agents are investigating. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees the high school, said it could not answer certain questions about the donations because it is “cooperating fully with law enforcement” and abiding by a request not to discuss anything related to the FBI’s inquiry.

An FBI spokesperson also recently confirmed that the IRS, which typically scrutinizes income that was not reported on tax filings, is involved in the investigation.

Huizar has not been arrested or charged with any crime.

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Richelle Huizar, who recently ended her campaign to replace her husband on the City Council, worked as a paid fundraiser for Salesian from July 2012 to January 2016, according to information provided by the archdiocese.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese declined to say how much Richelle Huizar earned, but said she did not receive a commission or bonuses for her fundraising activities. Financial disclosures filed by the councilman say her salary fell somewhere between $10,001 and $100,000.

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In a video honoring her work, one school official credited Richelle Huizar with lifting the school’s fortunes by making connections with “the business world and downtown.”

Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights. Richelle Huizar worked at the school as a fundraiser between 2012 and 2016.
Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights. Richelle Huizar worked at the school as a fundraiser between 2012 and 2016. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Huizar has remained close to his alma mater, holding his 2015 election-night victory party on the Boyle Heights campus and, earlier this year, speaking at commencement ceremonies. He has credited the all-boys school for putting him on the right path, writing at one point that it “literally changed the course of my life” after he had gotten into trouble in middle school.

Questions surrounding Huizar’s support for Salesian began to emerge before the FBI raids. In October, Huizar was sued by Pauline Medina, a former aide who alleged that the councilman had assigned her and other staffers to work on the yearly fundraiser for Salesian.

Among the multiple allegations in her lawsuit, Medina said she was “uncomfortable with the requirement that she and other Huizar staffers engage in fundraising activities for his high school alma mater, Salesian High School, while on city time.”

At the time, Huizar called Medina a disgruntled former employee and said her lawsuit was “full of misrepresentations.” Salesian administrators said a month ago that they had no record of Huizar staffers participating in school fundraising.

Still, two other former Huizar staffers also told The Times the councilman instructed employees to work on Salesian’s yearly event. One of them, former Huizar aide George Esparza, said the councilman directed “several staffers” to engage in fundraising activities at the school.

“We frequently made calls to ask for money and other donations for Salesian on his behalf, and we did so both off and on city time because he thought that it would help advance his agenda,” he said in an emailed statement. “We all worked extremely hard for [Huizar] and his wife, Richelle, who I understood to be the development director at school and also who directed our fundraising activities.”

Esparza, who left Huizar’s office in January, also said he wished the Huizars “nothing but the best.”

It is not unusual for politicians at Los Angeles City Hall to solicit donations on behalf of local charities. But legal and government experts said it would be ethically and legally questionable for an elected official to use staff to seek donations for a charity where his wife was employed as a fundraiser.

State law prohibits government officials from using public resources for the benefit of private interests. Experts said whether Huizar’s actions amount to a crime would depend on a variety of details, such as whether staffers felt they were instructed to do the work as part of their job duties.

Robert Weisberg, co-director of the criminal justice center at Stanford Law School, said a similar federal statute bars government officials from using public money for private purposes.

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The archdiocese declined to provide details about money raised from Salesian’s annual fundraising gala. However, The Times obtained programs from the event from the last five years, including the period when Richelle Huizar was working at the school, and disclosure forms submitted by the school to the Los Angeles Police Commission.

After Richelle Huizar took the job, donations to the yearly event increased.

In 2012, the school earned roughly $132,000 from the gala dinner, according to the disclosure forms. The next year, when Huizar was working for the school, Salesian netted more than $200,000, the forms indicate.

The LAPD was unable to locate a disclosure form for 2015, Richelle Huizar’s last full year at Salesian. However, an event program obtained by The Times said the school took in roughly 60 donations — nearly half of them for $5,000 or more, according to the event program.

Among those large contributors, about two-thirds had business before City Hall or had advocated for legislation under review by the council in recent years.

Among the most generous was Greenland USA, developer of the Metropolis project, which consists of four towers along the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. In December 2014, Huizar and his colleagues approved up to $18.7 million in financial aid for the Hotel Indigo, which is part of Greenland’s project.

Nine months later, Greenland USA appeared in Salesian’s fundraising program as a $25,000 donor. A company spokesman confirmed to The Times that Greenland USA gave the money but declined to say who requested the donation.

Greenland USA, developer of the Metropolis project, seen here in downtown Los Angeles, donated $25,000 to Salesian High School.
Greenland USA, developer of the Metropolis project, seen here in downtown Los Angeles, donated $25,000 to Salesian High School. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Also in 2015, at least three other real estate developers with projects in Huizar’s district gave donations of $10,000, according to the program.

Among them was Related Cos., which was seeking to build a Frank Gehry-designed complex across from downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. At the time of the Salesian gala, Huizar was pushing for financial aid that would allow the developer to finally build the long-delayed project. The following year, Huizar and his colleagues approved a package of nearly $200 million in taxpayer help.

A Related spokesman declined to answer questions about the listed donation.

At least two billboard companies — Clear Channel Outdoor and Lamar — also gave to the school in 2015, according to the event program. That year, Huizar headed a powerful committee focused on planning and real estate development that was continuing to discuss new regulations for digital billboards.

Ray Baker, Lamar’s vice president and general manager, said his company contributed $2,500 after receiving a request from Esparza, who was working as an aide to Huizar at that time.

Lisa Gritzner, who was then a registered lobbyist at City Hall, said a Huizar staffer, whom she declined to identify, asked her for a donation as well. Her firm at the time, Cerrell Associates, contributed $1,000 to the school.

Gritzner said she did not view the request as unusual or inappropriate, since council members and their staffers have long been known to ask for contributions to causes. She said she didn’t know Huizar’s wife worked as a fundraiser for Salesian.

Jose Huizar and his wife Richelle walk out after casting their votes at Sheridan Street School in Los Angeles on March 3, 2015.
Jose Huizar and his wife Richelle walk out after casting their votes at Sheridan Street School in Los Angeles on March 3, 2015. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Times also reviewed an email, sent from Jose Huizar to his wife and two staffers, that detailed his efforts to raise money for the school.

In the email, sent on Feb. 26, 2013, Huizar listed the donors he had contacted, including those who promised to give to Salesian as well as those who had yet to commit.

Huizar called or spoke with lobbyists, engineering firms and other businesses, according to the email, including groups trying to sway the City Council on key issues. For instance, he wrote that he had personally spoken with lobbyist John Ek, whose firm was then representing real estate developers, city contractors and a billboard company. He said in the email that he had gotten a commitment from Ek to donate $5,000.

“Spoke to John Ek and said he would do the 5,” Huizar wrote.

Ek said through a spokeswoman that $5,000 donations in 2013 and 2014 “sound accurate” — but that he doesn’t remember who asked for the contributions.

Huizar also said in the email that he received a $2,000 commitment from Skanska USA Civil, a New York City-based construction company, after speaking with one of its subcontractors.

Ten months later, Huizar and his colleagues voted to give a contract worth up to $250 million to a joint venture that included Skanska. The contract called for the joint venture to replace the 6th Street Bridge between Boyle Heights and downtown, one of the largest public works projects underway in Huizar’s district.

Skanska ultimately gave Salesian $2,500 that year and another $25,000 over the following two years, according to Mike Aparicio, Skanska USA’s executive vice president for the Western United States. Three other companies working on the bridge, either contractors or subcontractors, also gave to the school during that time, according to gala programs.

Aparicio said he did not receive any requests from Huizar or his staff and felt no pressure to donate to Salesian. The company gives generously in the communities where Skanska builds, he said, and donated another $15,000 to Salesian in 2017.

By then, Richelle Huizar had left her position at the school.

The 6th Street bridge replacement project in Los Angeles. Firms that received city contracts to work on the new bridge donated to Salesian in recent years, according to event programs.
The 6th Street bridge replacement project in Los Angeles. Firms that received city contracts to work on the new bridge donated to Salesian in recent years, according to event programs. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“We will not give if we think there’s any implied quid pro quo, or if we feel there’s any kind of duress, any kind of pressure,” Aparicio said.

In his 2013 email, Huizar said he had left a message for an executive at Anschutz Entertainment Group, and was hoping to secure a $5,000 donation. Later that year, he voted with his colleagues to award AEG a five-year contract to manage the city’s convention center.

AEG spokesman Michael Roth had no comment on the Huizar email and said his company contributed after being contacted by Salesian directly. Roth said his company gave $17,500 between 2013 and 2015 because of the banquet honorees — for example, former boxer Oscar De La Hoya was recognized in 2013 — not because of any request from the councilman or his staff.

“AEG makes donations to community organizations on a regular basis,” he said. “The donations are often based on the work done by the organizations and when there are exemplary honorees.”

Other donors with business at City Hall said either that they could not remember who asked them to donate or that they had given for reasons unrelated to the councilman.

Many contributors who gave while Richelle Huizar was employed by Salesian appear not to have donated after she left the school. Event programs for 2016 through 2018 do not list Greenland USA and several other big donors.

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In 2017, the Salesian program mentioned only 23 contributors — less than half the number listed two years earlier, Richelle Huizar’s last full year at the school.

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