Editorial: Corrupt politicians like Mitchell Englander deserve prison time
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander took envelopes of cash in casino bathrooms, among other sordid and lavish “gifts” from a businessman — none of which the councilman reported on his ethics forms. When federal authorities started asking questions, Englander lied repeatedly to investigators and coached witnesses to go along with his cover story.
Finally, when it became obvious that his misconduct had been caught on record and that he was facing multiple charges and serious prison time, Englander fessed up. He pleaded guilty to a single count of scheming to falsify material facts.
In short, Englander used his position as a public servant to cash in. So it’s both surprising and disturbing that federal probation officials have recommended a sentence that amounts to a mere slap on the wrist: three years’ probation, a $9,500 fine and no jail time or community service.
Understandably peeved, federal prosecutors submitted a scathing critique of the recommended sentence in advance of Englander’s sentencing Monday. They’ve pushed for 24 months in prison, 300 hours of community service and a $45,000 fine — three times the amount Englander received from the businessman.
The idea of no prison time is an insult to justice. An elected official cannot embrace corruption so cavalierly and get away without serving time. That would damage the public’s already fragile trust in government and would set a terrible precedent, especially as a federal investigation into City Hall bribery and corruption continues.
Englander is no rookie politician who made a dumb mistake. He served from 2011 to 2018 on the City Council, representing the north San Fernando Valley, and has often cited his work as a police reservist.
Englander apparently got caught up in the larger corruption probe when he traveled to Las Vegas in 2017 with the businessman and a group of city staffers, including his aide John Lee, who was elected to replace Englander after Englander stepped down in the middle of his term in 2018. On that trip, the businessman slipped Englander an envelope with $10,000 in cash in a casino bathroom. He also provided Englander a pricey meal and bottle service at a nightclub and sent an escort to the councilman’s hotel room.
A few weeks later, Englander and the businessman met again at a casino near Palm Springs, and Englander accepted $5,000 more in cash. Shortly after that, the councilman arranged for the businessman to meet with a real estate developer to promote his products.
That was bad enough. But Englander got himself into deeper trouble. Rather than admitting to investigators that he took $15,000 in cash and gifts, Englander lied again and again. He tried to cover his tracks by backdating checks to reimburse the businessman for the trip, and he repeatedly instructed the businessman to lie to investigators. So much for law and order.
Englander has pleaded for leniency. He’s submitted letters from dozens of friends, former co-workers and acquaintances — even actor Sean Penn — making the case that the councilman is remorseful and embarrassed. He’s been disgraced and his government consulting business has tanked. He doesn’t need prison time to deter him from future criminal activity, his lawyer argued in filings.
Sure, Englander is unlikely to offend again, but there is still a broader deterrent value in giving him a stiff sentence. His punishment will send a message to other elected officials about the consequences of using public office for personal gain. A weak sentence would effectively say that lying and obstruction are not so bad.
We want a justice system that is empathetic and considers the totality of a person’s circumstances, but not a two-tier system of justice that treats white-collar offenders more leniently, on the flimsy rationale that they’ve already lost their status in society or are no longer a danger.
The four years of the Trump administration — indeed, the atrocious pardons handed down in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency — have highlighted the urgent need for accountability and integrity among public servants.
Englander violated the public trust, and he needs to be punished accordingly.
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