‘Step down now’: LA mayor and City Council president to Councilmember Jose Huizar

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The pay-to-play allegations reflect terribly on LA City Hall, says longtime political reporter Jon Regardie. “It indicates that money — not merit — can push a project forward,” he says. Photo by Amy Ta.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez are calling on Councilmember Jose Huizar to resign. That’s a huge escalation in the growing troubles for Huizar. It comes after a corruption investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving real estate developers, which snagged one of Huizar’s former aides this week. As of this morning, Councilmember Huizar has not been formally named or charged with a crime.

KCRW speaks with Jon Regardie, who’s been covering the story for Los Angeles Magazine's website

KCRW: What do we know about these allegations? 

Regardie: “You have to go back to November of 2018. That was when the FBI raided the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar. It was stunning. Things got quiet.

Then suddenly this past March, everything exploded. In the past two months, there have been four guilty pleas as part of what we've learned as an ongoing FBI and Department of Justice investigation into … this pay-to-play culture within City Hall that is built around the real estate development scene. 

There's [sic] court documents detailing bribery, fraud, extortion. … You even had a former councilmember, Mitch Englander, who had resigned back at the end of 2018 abruptly. And no one knew why he agreed to plead guilty to a charge related to obstructing a corruption investigation. Then you had two other real estate industry fixers, Justin Kim and George Chiang, plead guilty. 

… There's the real big one just this week. That's George Esparza, who for five years was a top aide to Councilman Jose Huizar, he’s agreed to plead guilty.

Now the last two in particular, George Esparza and George Chiang, are so important because the federal authorities have brought out racketeering charges, the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] statute, what you often see used against criminal organizations. 

And they've literally said that there is a criminal organization operating in City Hall, led by a councilmember who they refer to as Councilmember A. And they actually call it the Council District A Enterprise.”

Some of the details of these allegations include funneling cash and trips to Las Vegas. 

“It reads like a Raymond Chandler novel, and elements of all your other great noirs and mystery and politicians behaving badly. … One thing that's really interesting is … the councilmember has not been arrested or charged with a crime. And within the documents themselves, the councilmember has not been named. But there's [sic] so many clear indications that point to him and that also details some of these tactics.

There's the reference in the new documents of a $600,000 bribe being paid by the head of a Chinese development company to go to a councilmember to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit at a specific time that relates to when Councilman Huizar himself was trying to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. 

There's [sic] references of hundreds of thousands of dollars being directed to a political action committee to benefit Relative A1, which was referred to as the relative of a councilmember who was seeking to run for that individual seat. 

That seems to be a clear reference to Richelle Huizar, Jose Huizar’s wife, who back in September 2018, she launched a bid to run for his seat, and then abandoned it two months later after the FBI investigation. 

And again … [there are] references in the Esparza documents to Esparza and Councilmember A being taken to Las Vegas more than a dozen times, private jet travel, the unnamed councilmember being given literally $215,000 in casino chips. This reflects pretty poorly.”

Huizar was already asked to give up his committee appointments, and he lost the support of some colleagues on the City Council. How significant is it that Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez are now publicly calling on him to resign?

“This is absolutely huge. … There were some people who were saying, ‘Okay, well, the man's never been indicted, and innocent until proven guilty.’ And even just last week, Council President Martinez had urged Councilman Huizar to stay away from Council, not vote, but no need to resign. Now in the wake of the George Esparza plea agreement, all that is gone. 

It really seems that his support is [sic] evaporated. There's [sic] certain individuals who even a week ago had been saying he should step down, notably councilmembers such as David Ryu, Joe Buscaino; Controller Ron Galperin. 

And now we're even getting into the colorful phase. Just yesterday, you had Councilman Mike Bonin chiming in on Twitter, saying ‘The banality, vulgarity, and casual criminality are disgusting.’”

How damaging are these allegations for LA City Hall when there's a big push to build more housing, a big building boom going on downtown?

“This reflects terribly on City Hall. It indicates that money — not merit — can push a project forward. And the new documents say not only were bribes paid, but developers who would not contribute, they were given a hard time. 

I think this really ramps up public distrust of City Hall. And I think there's [sic] a lot of people right now who are wondering, ‘Gosh, we've seen these people already plead guilty. Who else might be involved? Are we going to see other city employees? Are we going to see other elected officials who we've put our trust in indicted?’ And in a federal corruption investigation, it reflects really poorly on City Hall.”

Credits

Host:
Chery Glaser

Producers:
Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta