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Huizar arrested on federal corruption charges

LOS ANGELES — City Councilman Jose Huizar, long considered the central figure in a nearly two-year federal bribery and corruption probe at City Hall, has been arrested at his Boyle Heights home.

Huizar, suspected of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects, is expected to appear in Los Angeles federal court June 23 sometime in the afternoon.

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said the continuing probe has exposed “significant and blatant corruption” at Los Angeles’ landmark City Hall building.

“Unfortunately its grand exterior has concealed a cancer, a disease of elected officials and staff members breaking a series of laws in order to line their own pockets, maintain power and keep open a spigot of illicit bribes and other benefits,” Hanna said. “All of this comes at the expense of the city’s 4 million residents who simply want honest government and law-abiding businesses who simply want a level playing field.

“The case lays out a sordid tale of how Mr. Huizar and his cronies sold themselves to the highest bidder and in so doing, sold out the residents of this city,” he said.

Huizar’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment. Huizar is still on the council, but he was stripped of all his committee assignments following a November 2018 FBI search of his offices and home.

At the request of Council President Nury Martinez, he has not been attending council meetings and he agreed to limit his activities at City Hall, saying he did not want to be a “distraction” as the city dealt with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Martinez said that given Huizar’s arrest, she will “begin the process of removing him from office so that the good people of Council District 14 and the city of Los Angeles will be fairly and honorably represented. That is our duty and we must do it.”

Martinez said “the horrendous and disgusting allegations leveled against him and others have painted a dark cloud over our city government for a long time now.”

Three weeks ago, the first of four defendants who have signed plea agreements with federal prosecutors formally entered a guilty plea in the ongoing “pay-to-play” public corruption probe. Justin Kim, a former City Hall fundraiser, pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge for arranging a $500,000 bribe for a council member.

The council member in Kim’s case was not identified, but details in court papers pointed squarely at Huizar. Last month, former Huizar aide George Esparza agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute and has been cooperating in the years-long probe.

Also last month, real estate broker and development consultant George Chiang agreed to plead guilty to the same racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a scheme in which a Chinese real estate company bribed a council member in exchange for help on a major development project. Details in that filing also made clear prosecutors were referring to Huizar.

In November 2018, federal agents served search warrants at Huizar’s City Hall and field offices, along with his home, as part of the investigation.

Huizar was chairman of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee at the time.

The bribery scheme involving Kim began in 2016 when a labor group filed an appeal claiming a developer’s proposed residential high-rise project violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The developer contacted Kim in hopes of gaining Huizar’s support, court papers indicate.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the unnamed council member and developer negotiated a $500,000 payment, and in early 2017, the developer gave Kim $400,000 in cash inside a paper bag to deliver to the council member.

Kim kept some cash for himself for acting as a go-between, then delivered the money to a staff member to pass along to Huizar, court papers indicate.

Prosecutors allege the developer later paid the other $100,000 when the appeal was resolved, but Kim kept the money for himself.

Court documents filed in connection with Esparza’s plea agreement contend that his elected-official boss received more than $1 million in payments and financial benefits from a Chinese developer looking to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar’s district.

Prosecutors allege in the court papers that the developer took Esparza and the council member on more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas between 2014 and 2017 and provided them with “flights on private jets, hotel rooms, spa services, meals, alcohol, prostitution/escort services and casino gambling chips.”

The court papers allege the council member received a total of more than $200,000 in casino chips during the trips.

Prosecutors also contend the developer bankrolled a January 2016 trip to Australia with Esparza and the council member. The court papers cite text messages between Esparza and the council member following the Australia and Las Vegas trips, detailing efforts to cover up the payments and expenses they received from the developer.

Prosecutors also contend in the papers the developer — with Esparza’s knowledge — secured $600,000 in collateral so the council member could obtain a $570,000 bank loan to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the elected official in 2013 by a former employee. Huizar was sued in 2013 for alleged sexual harassment by former aide Francine Godoy. The married Huizar later claimed the two had a consensual affair. The lawsuit was settled in 2014, but the terms were never disclosed.

A date has not yet been set for Esparza to enter his guilty plea. Chiang is expected to plead guilty June 26, and Englander’s plea will be taken on July 7 in downtown Los Angeles.

The federal probe has been a dark cloud over City Hall for the past two years. In March, former City Councilman Mitch Englander separately agreed to plead guilty to scheming to falsify facts in a probe of his acceptance of cash and other gifts.