LA Councilor José Huizar arrested in corruption investigation

Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, an ambitious player in city politics for nearly two decades, was arrested Tuesday, making him the most prominent figure to face charges in the federal corruption investigation at City Hall.

Huizar faces a extortion charges stemming from allegations that he was running an extensive pay-per-play scheme, in which real estate developers were allegedly shaken by cash bribes and campaign donations in exchange for Huizar’s help in securing development projects for high altitude through the arduous approval process of the city. Prosecutors detailed their case against Huizar in court filings made public on Tuesday.

Along the way, the councilman and his associates reportedly enjoyed free air travel, fine dining, poker chips, and other perks offered by the developers.

“This case removed the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” said US Atty. Nick Hanna “Councilman Huizar violated public trust to an astonishing degree, allegedly requesting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from multiple sources for many years. Using the power of his office to approve or stop major construction projects, Huizar worked through a network of other corrupt city officials, lobbyists, consultants, and developers to fill his pockets. “

The charges against Huizar, 51, had long been anticipated.

FBI agents raided his home and offices in 2018, and prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s office. USA They have approached Huizar in recent months, methodically accusing associates who admitted to having participated in illegal business involving the councilman. In plea bargains, they reached an agreement with the government, a former assistant to Huizar, one of his political fundraisers, and a real estate consultant agreed to cooperate with the investigation by Huizar and others at City Hall.

Huizar, who was detained Tuesday morning by federal agents at his Boyle Heights home, is expected to appear for the first time Tuesday afternoon. A Huizar lawyer did not immediately comment.

The consequences of the arrest were quick. Council President Nury Martínez said he would immediately seek to remove Huizar from office.

“While today’s announcement of Councilor Huizar’s arrest is not unexpected, the horrendous and unpleasant accusations against him and others have painted a dark cloud over our city government for a long time,” Martinez said in a statement. “Effective today, I will begin the process of removing you from office, so that the good people of Council District 14 and the city of Los Angeles are represented fairly and honorably. That is our duty and we must do it. “

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also intervened, saying: “Councilman Huizar has violated the trust of the people who elected him. … It should be immediately removed from the City Council and replaced by its democratically elected successor to ensure that District XIV Council has the representation it deserves. “

In a 116-page affidavit filed before a magistrate judge on Monday as a reason to arrest Huizar, prosecutors alleged that Huizar operated what amounted to a criminal enterprise, in which he and others worked to enrich themselves through “bribery, extortion and fraud for honest services. ” while also plotting a way to retain power and access to the illicit cash Huizar had accumulated even after leaving office.

If convicted, Huizar faces up to 20 years in prison.

As of Tuesday, prosecutors had not identified Huizar by name, referring to him in the associates’ cases as “Councilman A”.

But Huizar’s identity was clear in court documents in which prosecutors described a councilman who was heavily involved in overseeing the city’s real estate planning and had a relative running to replace him when he reached his term limit. .

Huizar chaired the influential Land Use and Planning Committee, and his wife briefly mounted a campaign to replace him before abandoning the idea shortly after the FBI raids.

Richelle Huizar’s short career for her husband’s council seat figures prominently in the government’s case against the councilman, who prosecutors say was intended to get his wife elected to preserve influence and access to developer cash that he had accumulated while in office.

The money laundering, extortion and other illegal activities that Huizar is accused of deploying to carry out his plan amounted to a criminal enterprise, prosecutors argued in court documents.

Richelle Huizar has not been charged in the case, and it is unclear from court records whether prosecutors believe she was involved in her husband’s alleged crimes.

Huizar’s arrest comes almost three months after one of his colleagues, former city councilman Mitchell Englander, agreed to plead guilty in a related corruption case centered on cash envelopes and other bribes provided by a southern businessman. Of California.

And it happens almost two years after FBI agents searched Huizar’s home and offices, giving the public their first indication that the councilman was under investigation.

Following those raids, Huizar was removed from two powerful council committees: one that reviews major real estate projects, and one that authorizes tax breaks for hotel developers. And in recent weeks, Huizar has stopped attending council meetings entirely, amid calls from his colleagues to resign.

The arrest represents a dizzying fall for Huizar. Five years ago, he won a resounding electoral victory, securing his third and final term on the council. At the time, it had broad support from business leaders, city labor unions, and advocates of transportation improvements, such as bike lanes.

During that campaign, then-Council President Herb Wesson described Huizar as his best friend on the council. In 2018, Huizar’s wife was seen as a strong candidate to run for her seat once he was forced to resign later this year due to term limits.

Huizar began pressuring donors to donate big to a political action committee created to support his candidacy, activities that later became part of the federal government’s case. But Richelle Huizar abandoned her campaign in the wake of the FBI raids.

In recent months, prosecutors filed a series of cases alleging that the councilman received, or attempted to obtain, bribes from three different developers pursuing three different projects in his district.

Political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim has pleaded guilty to helping the developer of a 20-story residential tower organize a bribe for the councilman. Kim admitted to bringing cash to an assistant to Huizar, who in turn gave $ 200,000 in a box to Huizar, according to details in the federal documents.

Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar sat at a 2018 council meeting with an unidentified person next to him.

Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar sat at a 2018 council meeting with an unidentified person next to him.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors also struck a guilty plea with real estate consultant George Chiang, who admitted to having participated in a separate bribery scheme involving the councilman and developers of a planned hotel tower.

Although the developers were not named, details in federal documents show that businessmen were trying to rebuild the Hotel Luxe site on Figueroa Street, across from the LA Live entertainment complex.

Last month, former Huizar aide George Esparza reached his own guilty plea agreement, claiming that a Chinese billionaire provided him and the councilman with trips to Las Vegas, casino chips and other bribes.

The same billionaire provided Huizar with $ 600,000 in financial assistance to help him settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former aide, according to prosecutors. The deal allowed Huizar to get rid of a thorny political problem months before facing reelection in 2015.