The man long suspected to be the central figure in a federal bribery and corruption probe at City Hall was arrested at his home in Boyle Heights today, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar was taken into custody this morning in connection with a two-year investigation into a "pay-to-play" corruption case that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a developer allegedly in exchange for Huizar's support of a downtown high-rise project.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Huizar is facing a single federal charge of conspiring to violate the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Federal prosecutors allege that he accepted at least $1.5 million in bribes from developers.
The RICO charge can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.
During a press conference announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said the investigation has exposed "significant and blatant corruption'' at City Hall.
"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.
Council President Nury Martinez had previously requested that Huizar avoid attending council meetings and he agreed to limit his activities at City Hall, saying he did not want to be a "distraction'' while the city dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
Martinez said she would begin the process of removing Huizar 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.''
"The horrendous and disgusting allegations leveled against him and other have painted a dark cloud over our city government for a long time now," Martinez added.
"This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall," said Hanna. "Councilman Huizar violated the public trust to a staggering degree, allegedly soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from multiple sources over many years. Using the power of his office to approve or stall large building projects, Huizar worked through a web of other corrupt city officials, lobbyists, consultants and developers to line his pockets and maintain his hold on Council District 14, which he turned into a money-making criminal enterprise that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles."
"Mr. Huizar was busy enjoying the fruits of his alleged corruption while his criminal enterprise sold the city to the highest bidder behind the backs of taxpayers," said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. "As we continue to investigate this case, we urge residents, business owners and city employees to come forward with information about bribery and illegal practices in government. The FBI relies on the cooperation of others to build cases that successfully root out corruption in order to restore integrity in public office."
The arrest is the culmination of a two-year long investigation by federal authorities into an alleged "pay-to-play" scheme that suspected the councilman of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from developers in exchange for his support in building a high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. Huizar's arrest comes nearly three weeks after the first of four defendants, 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 no identified in court papers, however, details appeared to finger Huizar.
Huizar's former aide, George Esparza pleaded guilty last month to one county of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute. Esparza has reportedly been cooperating with federal authorities in the investigation.
A third member of the "pay-to-play" scheme, George Chiang, a real estate broker and development consultant, also agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a case that saw a Chinese real estate company bribe a council member in exchange for help in building a major downtown project. Details in that filing also appeared to point to Huizar as the council member.
Huizar's office at City Hall, his field offices as well as his home, were searched by federal agents after they served a warrant as part of the investigation into the scheme. At the time, Huizar served as the chairman for the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, federal agents seized approximately $129,000 in cash during a search of the Huizar's Boyle Heights home in November 2018.
Federal prosecutors allege that the "pay-to-play" scheme began in 2016 when a labor group filed an appeal about a developer's proposed residential high-rise project in downtown L.A. The group alleged that the development violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The developer supposedly contacted Kim in hopes of lobbying for Huizar's support of the project.
Court papers allege the unnamed council member and developer negotiated a $500,000 payment, $400,000 of which was delivered to the council member in 2017 in a paper bag. Kim, acting as a go-between, kept some of the cash himself, then delivered the money to one of Huizar's staff members to give to the councilman.
The developer later paid the remaining $100,000 when the group's appeal was finally resolved, however, Kim allegedly kept the money for himself, prosecutors say.
In Esparza's plea agreement, prosecutors contend that his boss had received more than $1 million in payments and financial benefits from a Chinese developer who wanted to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar's district. The developer reportedly took Huizar and Esparza on multiple trips to Las Vegas between 2014 and 2017, providing them with flights on private jets, hotel rooms, spa services, meals, alcohol, escort services, as well as casino chips.
More than $200,000 in casino chips was provided to the council member during the trips, court papers allege.
Huizar, who is still on the council, but has limited his activities at City Hall during the investigation, is expected to appear in Los Angeles federal court later today.
Mayor Eric Garcetti released a statement on Tuesday calling for Councilman Jose Huizar to be removed from the city council in light of his arrest.
"Council member Huizar has violated the trust of the people who elected him. I have zero tolerance for this criminal behavior and corruption,'' Garcetti said. "He should be immediately removed from the City Council and replaced by his democratically elected successor to ensure that the 14th Council District has the representation it deserves."
Kevin de Leon was elected to the 14th Council District in the March primary.
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