Editorial: How L.A. City Hall enabled Jose Huizar’s alleged corruption
The other shoe finally dropped at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, as federal agents brought long-awaited corruption charges against Councilman Jose Huizar — the second current or former member of the City Council to be accused of taking bribes from businessmen trying to buy special treatment.
The allegations against the councilman, who has maintained his innocence, aren’t at all surprising. The feds have been laying out their case against Huizar in court documents tied to guilty pleas entered by city officials and other associates of “Councilman A,” as federal officials referred to Huizar in those documents.
No matter how many times the pay-to-play accusations have been made, it doesn’t lessen their outrageousness. It’s far past time the council acted to excise the rot of corruption that emanates from the unholy intertwining of campaign finance and the city’s land-use approval process.
The charges against Huizar come more than a year and a half after the FBI raided his home and office, bringing to light an investigation that had been quietly under way since 2015. Since the raid, federal prosecutors have brought charges against a City Hall aide, a political fundraiser and a consultant all tied to Huizar, as well as former Councilman Mitch Englander in a related corruption scheme; each has either pleaded guilty or agreed to do so. Notably, Huizar was chairman and Englander was a member of the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which exerts significant control over development throughout the city.
At a press conference, U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna speaks about the man who worked in city politics for nearly two decades. Huizar is the most prominent figure to face charges in the federal investigation into corruption charges at City Hall.
As one unnamed former city official was recorded telling a Chinese developer in 2018, if Huizar does not put a project on the committee’s agenda, it “will not see the light of day for a long time.” The official — who, based on the description in the complaint, is former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan — added that even if other city departments approved the plan and specific changes in it, “the committee chaired by Jose can still completely reverse everything.”
In a 116-page affidavit, the FBI accused Huizar of using that power since 2013 to run a team of aides, consultants and other associates who extracted an enormous amount of cash and campaign donations, multiple casino trips and other personal indulgences from real estate developers. The goal, the feds allege, was not just to enrich members of the team personally, but also to help maintain Huizar’s political influence after he was termed out in 2020 by helping his wife succeed him.
“Huizar often targeted developers for contributions shortly before he was slated to vote on their projects and at times delayed projects by removing them from the PLUM Committee agenda while commitments were solicited and negotiated,” the complaint asserts. “Many of those developers were willing to pledge their commitment for $50,000 or $100,000, because Huizar’s vote was a high-value commodity they very much desired. Moreover, they feared not contributing as requested would anger Huizar who would then take adverse action (including inaction) on their projects.”
It’s worth remembering that Huizar served on the PLUM committee at the pleasure of his colleagues. He was well known as a prodigious fundraiser, which was both a result of that assignment and potentially a reason he kept the seat. Was the rest of the council blind to all the money flowing from real estate interests into Huizar’s campaign coffers?
According to the federal affidavit, Huizar also intervened on developers’ behalf with unions and other potential opponents. Nick Hanna, the U.S. attorney based in Los Angeles, accused Huizar of helping one developer win approval for a 35-story building in the Arts District — far taller than any other building there — with “minimal” affordable housing units and reduced requirements for unionized construction workers, saving the developer an estimated $14 million.
Again, Huizar hasn’t been convicted of anything at this point. Yet the guilty pleas that preceded him show that the current system of giving individual council members an inordinate amount of control over development approvals and denials is itself a corrupting force.
Adding to the problem is the willingness of council members to tap the real estate industry not just to build up seemingly impregnable campaign war chests, but also to buy goodwill with votes through “behested” contributions to local nonprofits and causes. Developers are happy to play along, knowing that they’re buying goodwill too — with the council members who will eventually sit in judgment over their projects.
You might argue that council members should have extra power over developments in their districts because they are uniquely sensitive to the concerns of (and pressure from) the people whom they represent. But when real estate interests throw tens of thousands of dollars into the mix, that tips the perceived balance away from the residents and in favor of the campaign donors.
And the public knows this. Cynicism about land-use decisions is rampant, which helps fuel the grassroots resistance to development and NIMBYism that has made it so difficult for the city to tackle its housing crisis.
Yet the council persists in maintaining the system, rejecting or slow-rolling reforms that would stop developers and their agents from currying favor with elected officials. As the guilty pleas mounted and the allegations against Huizar became clearer, his colleagues eventually emerged from their hiding places to say he could no longer be effective and needed to step down. But no matter what happens to Huizar, his removal does not solve the overriding problem. Oh and by the way, the FBI investigation is continuing.
The rest of the council may not be the architects of a corrupt system, but they’re certainly in charge of and have benefited from it. They can no longer credibly claim ignorance of the corruption in their midst. They need to shut down the pipeline of developers’ dollars, and they need to curb the power of individual council members to determine the fate of the projects in their districts.
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