FBI investigators take boxes of documents from José Huizar’s home in November 2018. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Former Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar pleaded guilty Jan. 20 to federal criminal charges for using his powerful position at City Hall to enrich himself and his associates, and for cheating on his taxes.

Huizar, 54, of Boyle Heights pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and one count of tax evasion. The plea agreement was filed Jan. 19 in U.S. District Court.

José Huizar

Huizar represented Council District 14 (CD-14), which includes Downtown Los Angeles, Little Tokyo, the Arts District and Boyle Heights, from 2005 until his resignation in 2020.

In his plea agreement, Huizar admitted to leading the CD-14 Enterprise, which operated as a pay-to-play scheme in which Huizar – assisted by others – unlawfully used his office to give favorable treatment to real estate developers who financed and facilitated bribes and other illicit financial benefits.

Specifically, Huizar and other city officials demanded and accepted cash bribes, casino gambling chips, prostitution and escort services, political contributions, flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxury hotels and casinos, expensive meals, tickets to concerts and sporting events, and other benefits.

Huizar also admitted to accepting a $600,000 bribe in the form of collateral from a billionaire real estate developer for Huizar to confidentially settle a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against Huizar by a former staffer.

“Huizar has admitted to orchestrating a racketeering scheme that enriched himself and others as they sought to monopolize political power at the expense of Los Angeles residents,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada. “This is one of the most wide-ranging and brazen public corruption cases ever uncovered in this district, demonstrating that our office will use all the tools of the federal government to vigorously prosecute crooked politicians whose betrayal of the public trust significantly erodes confidence in our local government.”

“Mr. Huizar’s actions, to include accepting a staggering amount of bribe money and lavish gifts, eroded the trust in the office he held for many years,” said Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Angelenos deserve better than being used for the personal enrichment of politicians grifting the system and foreign investors whose currency is corruption. I’m proud of the investigators and prosecutors whose hard work led to today’s admission of guilt.”

Huizar led the CD-14 Enterprise from at least February 2013 until July 2020, including for several years when he chaired the city’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, which oversaw major commercial and residential development projects in the city.

Members and associates of the CD-14 Enterprise also included lobbyists, consultants, and other city officials and staffers, who sought to personally enrich themselves and their families and associates in exchange for official acts. These members included George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant; real estate development consultant George Chiang; political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim; and lobbyist Morrie Goldman, among others. Each of these individuals has pleaded guilty in this case, is cooperating with the government’s investigation, and awaits sentencing.

The enterprise’s members and associates raised and solicited funds from developers and their proxies with projects in CD-14 to be paid to Huizar’s desired accounts and political action committees, including to benefit a Huizar relative’s campaign for the CD-14 seat.

In exchange for these benefits, Huizar, Esparza and other city officials agreed to perform and performed official acts, including:

• Presenting motions and resolutions in various city committees to benefit projects;

• Voting on projects in various city committees, including the PLUM Committee, and City Council;

• Taking, or not taking, action in the PLUM Committee to expedite or delay the approval process and affect project costs;

• Exerting pressure on city officials to influence the approval and/or permitting process of projects;

• Using their office to negotiate with and exert pressure on labor unions to resolve issues on projects;

• Leveraging voting and scheduling power to pressure developers with projects pending before the city to affect their business practices; and

• Introducing or voting on city resolutions to enhance the professional reputation and marketability of businesspersons in the city.

In return for Huizar pleading guilty to the two felony counts, prosecutors have agreed to seek no more than 13 years in prison for Huizar, who also has agreed to forfeit $129,000 in cash that law enforcement found during a law enforcement search of his home in November 2018. The government also intends to seek more than $1 million in restitution on the city’s behalf.

As part of the plea agreement, Huizar has agreed to seek a sentence of no less than nine years in prison.

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter scheduled an April 3 sentencing hearing for Huizar.

The plea agreement is “binding,” which means the court must accept or reject all aspects of it. Should the court reject the plea agreement, any party may withdraw from it. Judge Walter said that he would make that decision prior to Huizar’s sentencing date.

In June 2022, real estate developer Dae Yong Lee, a.k.a. “David Lee,” 57, of Bel Air and one of his companies, 940 Hill LLC, were found guilty of providing $500,000 in cash to Huizar and Esparza in exchange for their help in resolving a labor organization’s appeal of their Downtown development project. Both defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on May 5.

In November 2022, Downtown Los Angeles-based company Shen Zhen New World I LLC was found guilty of eight felonies for – through the actions of its owner, billionaire real estate developer and fugitive Wei Huang, 57, of Shenzhen, China – paying more than $1 million in bribes – including luxury trip expenses, casino gambling chips and the $600,000 sham loan – to Huizar to obtain city approval to build a 77-story skyscraper. The company’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 12.

Huang, who is charged with several felonies, has yet to make a court appearance in this case and is considered a fugitive believed to be in China.

On Feb. 21, former Los Angeles deputy mayor and co-defendant Raymond She Wah Chan, 66, of Monterey Park is scheduled to go on trial. Chan, who is accused of being a member of the corrupt CD-14 Enterprise, has pleaded not guilty to charges of RICO conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and lying to federal agents.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a related case, Huizar’s brother, Salvador Huizar, 56, of Boyle Heights, pleaded guilty in October 2022 to lying to federal investigators and a federal grand jury about accepting cash from his brother on numerous occasions in exchange for paying certain of Huizar’s bills. Salvador Huizar’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 15.

The FBI is investigating this matter, with assistance from IRS Criminal Investigation.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack E. Jenkins, chief of the Criminal Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cassie D. Palmer, Susan S. Har, and Brian R. Faerstein of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section are prosecuting this case.

Any member of the public who has information related to this or any other public corruption matter in the City of Los Angeles is encouraged to send information to the FBI’s email tip line at pctips-losangeles@fbi.gov or to contact the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office at (310) 477-6565.

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