LA Councilman Jose Huizar Arrested By FBI, Accused Of Leading 'Criminal Enterprise' From City Hall

Councilman Jose Huizar in 2014. (Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC)

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Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, long suspected of being a target in a sweeping corruption probe involving a "pay-to-play" scheme at City Hall, was arrested Tuesday on a federal racketeering charge.

Huizar, who represents L.A.'s Council District 14, was taken into custody by FBI agents at his Boyle Heights home, according to Laura Eimiller, spokesperson for the FBI's L.A. field office.

He has been charged with "conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act," federal prosecutors said in a news release, alleging he agreed to accept at least $1.5 million in bribes.

The councilmember "led a criminal enterprise that used his powerful position at City Hall to solicit and accept lucrative bribes and other financial benefits to enrich himself and his close associates," U.S. Department of Justice officials said. That enterprise also engaged in fraud, extortion, and money laundering, according to prosecutors.

"This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in the release. "Using the power of his office to approve or stall large building projects, Huizar worked through a web of other corrupt city officials, lobbyists, consultants and developers to line his pockets and maintain his hold on Council District 14, which he turned into a money-making criminal enterprise that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles."

The RICO conspiracy charge alleged in the complaint (which you can read below) carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Huizar's attorneys, Mary Carter Andrues and Vicki Podberesky, said the council member "intends to respond to the government's allegations in court."

"He firmly believes that these matters should be handled in a court of law and not in the media. Councilman Huizar requests that the press respect the privacy of his family and children," they said in a written statement provided to KPCC/LAist.

The FBI raided Huizar's home and district offices in 2018. A hard-drive sniffing dog was deployed at his house in Boyle Heights and agents left with a filing box labeled "Fundraising."

In that search, agents seized about $129,000 in cash from Huizar's home, according to the 172-page indictment released today (you can read the whole thing here). Federal officials said cash recovered in the 2018 raid included money found in a suit and wrapped up in a T-shirt.

These images from the federal indictment of L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar show some of the $129,000 in cash FBI agents seized from the councilmember's Boyle Heights home in November 2018. (Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California)

Federal officials painted a detailed picture of the alleged criminal scheme. They said the investigation, dubbed "Casino Loyale," began in 2015 with a tip from "partners" in Las Vegas that Huizar was seen cashing out casino chips that were ultimately traced back to a Chinese developer.

The court filings offer the example of an unnamed company that schemed with Huizar to secure benefits connected to an Arts District project. The executive highlighted the "truly amazing" accomplishment of minimizing affordable units in a building "in a wealthy opinionated hipster community." The executive made several donations to a political action committee linked to Huizar.

Department of Justice and FBI officials stressed that their investigation into corruption at L.A. City Hall will not end with the arrest of Huizar.

Huizar made a court appearance Tuesday afternoon, but was not asked to enter a plea, according to a Department of Justice press release. The judge ordered his release on a $100,000 bond, and he was set to be released later this afternoon. A preliminary hearing was set for July 14, with an arraignment scheduled for July 20.

REACTION FROM CITY LEADERS

Following the news of Huizar's arrest, City Council President Nury Martinez said she would start the process to remove the councilmember from office.

Tuesday afternoon, the City Council voted 14-0 to suspend Huizar, though he can't be officially removed from his position unless he pleads or is found guilty.

Former state Senator Kevin de León has already won the election to succeed Huizar with more than 50% of the vote in the March primary, but isn't scheduled to take office for several months.

"I am in discussions with 14th District Councilmember-elect Kevin de León on what is the best path forward for Council District 14," Martinez said. "Today's arrest of a duly elected city councilmember is a stain on our city government, but it should serve as a reminder that no one is above the law."

In May, Martinez asked Huizar not to attend meetings until there was "legal clarity" regarding his involvement in the FBI probe, and several councilmembers called on him to resign.

Mayor Eric Garcetti provided this statement to LAist:

"Councilmember Huizar has violated the trust of the people who elected him. I have zero tolerance for this criminal behavior and corruption. He should be immediately removed from the City Council and replaced by his democratically-elected successor to ensure that the 14th Council District has the representation it deserves."

Huizar's peers on the L.A. City Council are also weighing in.

"I am disappointed, disgusted, and ashamed to have shared a title with Jose Huizar," Councilmember Joe Buscaino said in a statement to LAist. "He has tarnished the reputation of the entire L.A. City Council."

Councilmember David Ryu said corruption "has been allowed to fester in City Hall for far too long," adding that serious reform is needed.

Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell said Huizar should resign immediately, or else the City Council should vote to suspend him (that was before they voted to do just that).

"The constant stream of pay-to-play corruption indictments and guilty pleas have taken a devastating toll on the ideals of public service that I hold near and dear," O'Farrell said. "The vast majority of city employees chose a career to do some good in this world and work day in and day out with integrity and professionalism. This is a betrayal to us all."

"It's time welcome Councilmember Kevin DeLeon, and have a representative of the neighborhoods of the 14th District join the work to steer us through a time of crisis and build a better, stronger, more equitable Los Angeles," Councilmember Mike Bonin said in a statement.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield wondered why arresting and charging Huizar "took so darn long" in light of "all the damning material" that's come to light through the yearslong investigation.

"The FBI and DOJ have been clear that they are still investigating any and all forms of corruption at City Hall and I welcome their efforts," he said in a statement. "We need to root out all illegal schemes and participants before we can lift the cloud of corruption and uncertainty that is making it hard for the city to function properly. Consequences for criminal behavior, along with accountability and transparency measures, are a critical part of the process for restoring the public's trust."

"No one is above the law," Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said in a statement. "Our City, State and Country deserve public servants acting with integrity — whether elected, appointed or sworn. I look forward to justice being served in all cases where the public's trust has been betrayed."

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The sweeping FBI investigation of City Hall has appeared to target the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, known as PLUM — a powerful body where development projects meet their fates. They flourish with public support or die in regulation purgatory.

The first documented activity by the FBI was a search warrant issued in February 2017 on Huizar's personal Yahoo email account.

Huizar was the chair of PLUM until the FBI raided his home and offices in the fall of 2018 and Council President Herb Wesson subsequently stripped the 14th District councilman of all committee assignments.

An FBI agent carries a case from the Boyle Heights home of L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar on Nov. 7, 2018. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The councilman's wife, Richelle Huizar, had announced her candidacy to run for the 14th District seat when her husband was termed out of office in 2020. But her campaign was short-lived: she dropped out of the race in November 2018 following the FBI raids.

Huizar was named in another search warrant the FBI issued to Google in July 2018, which suggested the feds were digging into "development projects in and around Los Angeles that relate to foreign investors." Chinese development firms like Oceanwide Holdings were included in the warrant, which requested information from the Gmail account of Raymond Chan, former head of the city's Department of Building and Safety. Chan later worked as a deputy mayor and then at the private firm CCC Investment Group.

Other city officials and staff named in the warrant: Councilman Curren Price; Deron Williams, chief of staff to Councilman Herb Wesson; and Joel Jacinto, a Garcetti appointee to the city's board of public works.

Huizar began his political career on the LAUSD board, first elected in 2001 and rising to president in 2003. He worked as an attorney while on the school board. Four years later, he replaced Antonio Villaraigosa on the city council in a special election after Villaraigosa ascended to the mayor's office.

Huizar's district covers a swath of east and northeast L.A. and most of downtown, including Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, some of Highland Park, and Eagle Rock.

OTHER CHARGES SO FAR

Huizar's arrest follows a string of corruption-related charges connected to the FBI investigation:

  • On May 27, former Huizar special assistant George Esparza agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge. Prosecutors said that, among other crimes, Esparza helped facilitate more than $1 million in bribes from a Chinese real estate tycoon who was looking to build a skyscraper in Huizar's district. In addition to the bribes, the tycoon provided nearly $600,000 to settle a 2013 sexual harassment lawsuit against an unnamed councilmember. In 2014, Huizar settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against him by a former staffer.
  • On May 13, it was reported that George Chiang, a Granada Hills real estate developer, agreed to plead guilty in connection with a scheme to bribe public officials — including an unnamed member of the L.A. City Council — to smooth the passage of real estate projects.
  • On March 19, Justin Jangwoo Kim, a real estate appraiser and political fundraiser, agreed to plead guilty to facilitating a $500,000 bribe payment to an unnamed city councilman, who allegedly agreed to help usher a residential development project through PLUM, overcoming an appeal based on the state's environmental law. Kim worked with a top staffer for the councilmember, according to the plea agreement. That staffer accepted $200,000 on behalf of their boss. Kim also pocketed a large chunk of the money as compensation for organizing and carrying out the deal.
  • On March 27, former councilman and member of the PLUM committee Mitch Englander agreed to plead guilty to one count of scheming to falsify material facts. He had previously pleaded not guilty to seven counts of violating federal anti-corruption law. Englander was allegedly caught on tape discussing how to cover up a lavish Las Vegas trip and cash payments from a businessman who wanted lucrative Los Angeles developer connections to help sell his products.
  • Englander's chief-of-staff until June 2017 was now-Councilman John Lee, who represents the same district. Lee was not named in the indictment, but has since confirmed he went on the Vegas trip. On Monday, Lee said in a statement that he was unaware of any illegal activity, and cooperated "completely" with the FBI. On Wednesday, the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Association will take up a motion to call on Councilman John Lee to resign. A petition has also been started calling for Lee's resignation.

Libby Denkmann, Ryan Fonseca, Aaron Mendelson, and Mike Roe contributed to this story.

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