OAKLAND – FBI agents arrested Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar on Tuesday on a federal extortion charge stemming from his alleged involvement in an extensive pay-per-play corruption scheme.
Prosecutors believe Huizar and his associates requested bribes and other financial benefits such as trips to Las Vegas from people with businesses before City Hall, and in return, helped those benefactors advance real estate projects. Among the benefits Huizar is supposed to have accepted are about $ 600,000 in guarantees to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.
“This case removed the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” United States Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement. “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.”
A Huizar lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
An FBI affidavit puts Huizar at the center of a long-standing pay-per-play scheme in which financial benefits and political favors flowed back and forth between Huizar’s orbit and real estate developers, primarily Chinese individuals, with projects in Los Angeles. Prosecutors called the scheme Operation Casino Loyale.
Prosecutors believe Huizar and his associates received cash, including contributions to his re-election campaign, and a gleaming menu of luxury hotel stays, sumptuous meals and event tickets, which they tried to conceal from the government, even making statements. false about a loan application and hiding $ 129,000 at Huizar’s residence, which FBI agents found hidden in a closet during a search.
In return, Huizar allegedly filed motions or voted to advance his benefactors’ projects while pressuring other city officials, unions, and developers to help real estate developments. The events took place when the Huizar district was experiencing a “historic real estate boom,” the affidavit alleges, and Huizar was in a position to enrich himself because he chaired the city’s land use and planning committee. A prominent Chinese billionaire real estate developer who wanted to build the tallest building west of the Mississippi allegedly provided $ 800,000 worth of financial benefits to Huizar.
“Mr. Huizar was able to provide preferential treatment to those who paid because most of the development in recent years has focused on his district,” Hanna said at a press conference. “She decided which projects lived and which projects died.”
The affidavit details the developers’ Huizar campaign contribution pledges with pending issues before the committee. He allegedly submitted resolutions praising business executives who had contributed money, and tried to communicate that developers who failed to comply could see their projects undermined.
The federal case also alleges that Huizar used the scheme to try to elect a relative to succeed him on the City Council while Huizar watched the city-wide office, which the affidavit describes as an effort to perpetuate the scheme in a way that kept Huizar in power and kept him flowing. Huizar and his associates allegedly established a political action committee to boost the relative and then sought donations.
The federal investigation had already caught four other people. They included former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander, as well as former Huizar staff member George Esparza, who this year served as Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Wendy Carrillo (D-Boyle Heights) but is no longer working for the Assembly.
Englander agreed to plead guilty to obstructing a federal investigation. Esparza pleaded guilty earlier this year, admitting to an ongoing plan to exchange favors from people with businesses before City Hall for political support.
The investigation directed at Huizar and his associates has cast a shadow over the City of Los Angeles. City Council President Nury Martinez said the arrest “was not unexpected,” comparing the investigation to “a dark cloud over our City government” and said he would remove him from office.
“That is our duty and we must do it,” Martinez said in a statement.