L.A. Fundraiser Pleads Guilty To Coordinating $500,000 Bribe Involving Councilmember
A Mar Vista fundraiser and real estate appraiser pled guilty on a charge connected to his coordination of a $500,000 bribe to a city councilmember, the Department of Justice announced Thursday, the latest domino to fall in an FBI investigation into corruption at Los Angeles City Hall.
Justin Jangwoo Kim pled guilty to one count of federal program bribery, and agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation.
The guilty plea, signed by Kim on March 16, comes only 10 days after an indictment against former councilmember Mitch Englander, who surrendered to authorities on charges he "obstructed an investigation into him accepting cash, female escort services, hotel rooms and expensive meals from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, and later lied to the FBI about his conduct," according to a statement from the FBI.
Englander pleaded not guilty.
The plea agreement and indictment do not identify the Los Angeles city councilmember, who is referred to as Councilmember A. However, key details in the documents are consistent with publicly available information about 14th District Councilman Jose Huizar.
Huizar's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The court filings released Thursday state that Kim facilitated a $500,000 cash bribe from a real estate developer in 2017. They go on to allege that Kim kept at least $100,000 in cash, originally intended for Councilmember A, for himself.
The filings provide further details. The real estate developer had been planning to build a residential complex on a parcel purchased in 2008. That project hit a snag in 2016, when a labor group filed a California Environmental Quality Act appeal. That summer, the developer approached Kim and asked him to assist with the appeal, which could reach the city council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
From there, things moved fast, according to the filings.
In September 2016 Kim, a city staffer and the councilmember met over dinner to discuss the CEQA appeal. Later in the evening, they headed to a Korean karaoke spot, where they were joined by the developer.
The next day, the city staffer told Kim "that Councilmember A would not help [the project] for free," the filing says. Kim relayed that back to the developer at a bowling alley in Little Tokyo.
By early 2017, Kim and the city staffer had come to an agreement: "$500,000 in cash in exchange for Councilmember A's assistance in resolving the appeal." The councilmember would collect $300,000, the filing states.
The filings allege that the councilman and city staffer, working with an unnamed lobbyist, sought to get the CEQA appeal dropped, which happened in March 2017.
In early 2017, Kim met with the developer and received a paper bag containing $400,000 in cash. Kim dropped off money to the city staffer in a car, but kept a chunk of the cash for himself, the filing says. Kim received another $100,000 in cash from the developer in July, and also kept that money for himself. He did not report the cash payments on his federal tax return.
Kim's attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
A 'SUCCESSION PLAN'
Kim's plea agreement says that Kim supported Councilmember A's "succession plan" to elect a relative to city council. Richelle Huizar, who is married to Jose Huizar, had planned to run for her husband's seat in 2020. She dropped out of the race after the FBI raided their home in 2018.
Like Councilmember A, Huizar sat on the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee. (He was the chair; he was stripped of this and his other committee assignments after the FBI raid.)
Justin Jangwoo Kim and the city staffer repeatedly discussed the succession plan and "the need to ensure Councilmember A's relative was elected for their own political and financial benefit", the U.S. Attorneys wrote.
In June 2017, Kim, the councilmember and the city staffer met with a lobbyist to discuss creating political action committees to raise money to support the plan. The councilmember suggested having Kim find someone to serve as the face of the PAC, and disguise the councilmember's involvement, according to the court filing.
Kim was interviewed by FBI investigators in May 2017, and agreed to keep it a secret. However, the court filing says, he turned around and almost immediately called the city staffer about the interview.
The filings also say Councilmember A began to angrily text his staffer about receiving the bribe money, accusing him of trying to keep it all. "You are using excuses as for the real reason u don't want to meet and u know it. U told me October. Now what?"
The texts were sent in October 2018, more than a year after the paper bag of cash was handed to Kim.
Kim's plea could result in as much as 10 years in prison and a six-figure fine.