If a public leader had to pick a week to get arrested, they couldn’t have picked a better time than last week.
Rightfully so, national and local attention has been heavily focused on the outbreak of the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus that is currently spreading across the country, with local and state authorities scrambling to design a response to the pandemic.
However, it’s important not to lose sight of the other important news currently ongoing in City Hall. Last week, former 12th District City Councilman Mitch Englander turned himself into federal authorities on seven criminal counts, including charges of corruption related to an ongoing investigation into an alleged City Hall “pay-to-play” scheme, witness tampering and making false statements.
The details of the charges were something akin to a scene in a Martin Scorsese mob film. According to an indictment released by the U.S. Department of Justice, Englander allegedly tried to cover up an expensive trip to Las Vegas where he is said to have accepted $10,000 in cash from an unnamed businessman and tens of thousands of dollars worth of dinner, bottle and hotel services. The councilman also allegedly accepted the services of a female escort, and $5,000 in cash in a bathroom on a separate trip to a Palm Springs golf tournament.
As it stands, these are only allegations (and Englander pleaded not guilty in federal court) and the full scope of the federal investigation is still not clear. However this is the first indictment to come out of the probe, following the headline-grabbing FBI raid of 14th District José Huizar’s home and offices in Nov. 2018.
If last week’s news was any indication, more is likely to come. The investigation into Englander’s actions are seemingly beginning to impact his former chief of staff and current 12th District City Councilman John Lee. Lee admitted to going on the Las Vegas trip but said in statements that he did not accept any inappropriate services, and attempted to pay back the unidentified businessman after the trip. Lorraine Lundquist, who challenged Lee in March’s primary election, has called for Lee to step down if the details reveal wrongdoing on Lee’s part.
The allegations and ongoing investigation are made more concerning given that Englander served on the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee, which approved the large-scale and expensive projects that have gone up around Los Angeles, nowhere more so than in Downtown. The investigation concerns not only Englander, but also investment tied to that development boom. Huizar also served on the PLUM committee but was later removed from his assignments in the wake of the raids.
Corruption in city government is unfortunately nothing new, and has plagued this city for as long as there has been a City Hall to operate out of, but as public trust in our government bodies continues to be whittled away from the federal level down, new rules need to be put into place and more scrutiny needs to be levied on public officials to curb such behavior.
Englander’s first trial appearance is on May 5, after a status conference in April. His arrest is not just the latest update to the sometimes opaque investigation, but also a reminder to Angelenos of the need to be scrutinous of local government. Los Angelenos just went to the polls, albeit not as many as this page would like, to elect new County Supervisors and City Councilmembers, and voted for solutions to local ills. If we are to expect the public to act in good faith when casting ballots, so to should the individuals who are ultimately elected to these posts. It’s the least the public can ask for.