A former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar has agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge in connection with the federal “pay-to-play” corruption investigation at City Hall.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says George Esparza admitted to participating in a scheme involving a downtown real estate project being developed by a company owned and run by a Chinese billionaire. Esparza has agreed to cooperate with the investigation as part of a plea deal, and plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeering Influence and Corruption Organization (RICO) statute. He is the latest person to be swept up in an investigation that has resulted in guilty pleas from former City Councilman Mitchell Englander and former City Planning Commissioner Justin Jangwoo Kim. Earlier this month, real estate consultant George Chiang admitted he was involved in a scheme to bribe a city councilmember and will plead guilty to racketeering.
Jack Weiss, a former LA City councilman for the 5th district, and a former federal prosecutor has been watching the case closely. He says that it’s very unusual for the feds to charge public officials with RICO.
“[Esparza] signed his plea agreement is he helped Councilmember Huizar run the Huizar office as if it were a mob operation. [RICO] says that you didn't just commit a crime that you were part of an enterprise and ongoing operation basically, like you were in the business of committing crimes,” Weiss tells KCRW. “And it puts the LA City Council in a bind, because under the city charter, you can't expel a member unless the member has been convicted or guilty or has resigned. And so they now have this giant scar on the body.”
Although he has yet to be charged, Weiss says that Councilman Jose Huizar is the target of the investigation. Huizar’s office declined to comment to KCRW.
“Given the pace of the charges they've revealed in the past month or two… they really have to put up or shut up on Huizar pretty soon,” Weiss says. “The charter doesn't give his colleagues a means to kick him out [of the City Council]. If you read these charging documents today, it's pretty clear that he needs the money. And I think he's going to continue to draw his public salary until he leaves office by the operation of term limits this year.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez are calling on Huizar to resign.