Los Angeles councilman accused of “jaw-dropping” bribery scheme

A Los Angeles councilman was charged Tuesday with taking bribes from a number of developers, including a Chinese billionaire, as part of a comprehensive “pay-per-play” scheme, authorities said.

José Huizar, 61, was arrested at his home on a federal organized crime charge amid an ongoing FBI corruption investigation, according to federal prosecutors in California.

]Huizar is accused of turning his seat on the city council into what US Attorney Nick Hanna described as a “criminal money-making business that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles.”

According to the criminal complaint, Huizar accepted illicit cash from the developers in exchange for help in obtaining approvals for large real estate projects.

In one case, Huizar received $ 600,000 from an unidentified Chinese billionaire who runs a global real estate company and owns a hotel in the Huizar district, the complaint says.

The money was provided as collateral to help Huizar settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former staff member against him, according to the complaint.

The Chinese billionaire also provided Huizar with “direct and indirect financial benefits” on more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas casinos, which included private jet travel and elegant villa stays, according to the criminal complaint.

In total, the developer distributed more than $ 800,000 in benefits in exchange for the councilman’s help in his ambitious plan to redevelop his property and build the tallest building west of the Mississippi, according to an affidavit.

When federal agents searched Huizar’s home in November 2018, according to the criminal complaint, they found about $ 129,000 in cash hidden in a closet. Some of the money was hidden in red envelopes with Chinese characters, according to the complaint.

Agents found cash in red envelopes with Chinese characters.United States District Court for the Central District of California

“This case removed the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” said 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.”

Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 2001 to 2009, described the case as a “multi-million dollar bribery scheme.”

“It would be impressive at the highest levels of government in the United States, but the fact is, that’s the amount of cash that was thrown in to lubricate business and real estate approvals in a city,” Weiss said.

Huizar appeared in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon and was ordered released with a $ 100,000 bonus. His attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

The FBI’s ongoing corruption investigation has already wiped out a former Huizar aide, a real estate consultant, a political fundraiser and former City Council member Mitchell Englander.

Englander faces up to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstructing a public corruption investigation related to his acceptance of gifts, including cash, hotel rooms and expensive meals, from a developer during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs in 2017 .

Huizar, who served as chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee and a member of the Economic Development Committee, was elected in 2005 to the Los Angeles City Council representing District 14, which includes the downtown area of developing. He was reelected three times for four-year terms, the last of which was due to end this year due to term limits.

The FBI began investigating Huizar in August 2015 for soliciting and accepting bribes and kickbacks from a developer in Las Vegas. The Office interviewed more than 75 people to uncover a network of bribery, mail and wire fraud, extortion, money laundering, interstate and foreign travel in aid of the organized crime company and obstruction of justice.