After serving on the LA City Council for over a decade, José Huizar was arrested at his Boyle Heights home June 23 on federal racketeering charges.
He allegedly masterminded a “pay-to-play” scheme with powerful real estate developers. If convicted, Huizar could face up to 20 years in federal prison.
A complaint released by the Department of Justice on June 23 alleges Huizar and his associates were part of a “criminal enterprise” in which they conspired to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, committing extortion, bribery, money laundering and honest services fraud.
“Our investigation has pulled back the curtain on significant and blatant corruption at City Hall,” U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna said. “Councilman Huizar violated the public trust to a staggering degree.”
Because of Huizar’s role as the Planning and Land Use Management Committee chairman, he allegedly gave preferential treatment to those who paid during the city’s review process.
“He decided which projects lived and which projects died,” Hanna explained. Most new developments were Downtown in part of District 14, which Huizar represented.
Dubbed “Operation Casino Royale,” the allegations in the report say Huizar illegally accepted approximately $1.5 million in bribes from various lobbyists and developers.
Huizar and his associates also reportedly accepted bribes in the form of luxury hotels, hotels, expensive meals, casino trips, prostitution services as well as tickets to sports events and concerts, according to the 116-page affidavit. In exchange, Huizar allegedly used his power to help the bribers obtain real estate developments.
“In addition to cash, trips and other benefits, one Chinese real estate magnate allegedly put up $600,000 to be used as collateral so Mr. Huizar could obtain a bank loan to pay off a woman who accused him of sexual harassment,” said Hanna.
Hanna added when Huizar stopped making bank payments, the collateral was allegedly used to pay off the loan.
While Huizar was in custody, the rest of the City Council voted unanimously to suspend him.
“Today’s arrest of a duly elected city council member is a stain on our city government,” City Council President Nury Martinez said in a Facebook post announcing his suspension. “But it should serve as a reminder that no one is above the law.”
Many had anticipated his arrest, as a trail of evidence had reportedly been unfolding over the years.
Multiple sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed against Huizar since 2013 by Huizar’s former staffers, one of whom was offered a $600,000 settlement funded by the alleged bribes, according to the official complaint. In exchange for the bribe, Huizar allegedly assisted the real estate developer’s plans to redevelop his property and “build the tallest building west of the Mississippi River,” the affidavit reads.
In November 2018, FBI agents searched Huizar’s residence and found $129,000 in red envelopes with Chinese characters, concealed and wrapped in a T-shirt and stashed in a suit jacket pocket in Huizar’s closet, according to the affidavit.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and Martinez publicly called on Huizar to immediately resign after his closest aide, George Esparza, agreed to plead guilty on charges connecting him to the “pay-to-play” scheme in late May. Huizar refused to step down and as a result was asked by Martinez to refrain from attending meetings, in which he publicly agreed to limit his participation in council.
Huizar is the fifth person to be charged in connection with the corruption probe. In March, former Councilman Mitchell Englander agreed to plead guilty to being involved along with a political fundraiser, Justin Jangwoo Kim. Around two months later, real estate development consultant George Chiang agreed to plead guilty to his participation in the scheme as well.
As Huizar approached the end of his term limit, he planned to have a relative succeed him to continue the alleged bribery for at least another decade, where he likely planned to rise to the role of city attorney or mayor, according to the affidavit.
While the relative is only identified as Relative A-1 in the affidavit, it’s reportedly his wife, Richelle Huizar, as the dates of her candidacy announcement line up with the dates listed in the official document.
After their house was raided, however, Richelle dropped her campaign. She has not yet faced charges in relation to the corruption probe, and court records do not indicate whether Richelle knowingly took part in the alleged crimes.
The grand exterior of Los Angeles concealed a “cancer” within the city’s government, Hanna said.
He called the corruption probe “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.”
Huizar was released on a $100,000 bond, and he will declare his plea to the charges in his arraignment, which is set for July 20. Huizar could spend up to 20 years in federal prison if found guilty.