Former L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander Sentenced To 14 Months For Obstructing FBI Corruption Probe

Englander, his wife, attorney and reporters leaving the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. in March, 2020. (Libby Denkmann/ LAist)

Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander was sentenced on Monday to 14 months in prison after he agreed to plead guilty to a single count of scheming to obstruct an FBI investigation. The case is part of an extensive corruption probe at L.A. City Hall.

"I own what I did," Englander told Judge John F. Walter, who sat in his courtroom on 1st Street in downtown Los Angeles while Englander, his defense attorneys and the U.S. Attorneys in charge of the case appeared remotely via Zoom. "I hurt the very people I love the most. I apologize to the community, my former constituents, and most of all I apologize to my family, my wife and my daughters."

Englander is also responsible for a $15,000 fine and faces three years of supervised release upon completion of his prison term.

Walter called the conviction a "black spot" on Englander's legacy. "It's been my experience in these types of cases ... it's basically arrogance," Walter said. "And thinking they will never get caught. And if they do get caught, because of their position, that the consequences are not going to be significant."

Before striking the plea agreement, Englander faced more than half-a-dozen federal charges for allegedly accepting at least $15,000 in cash and a blowout Las Vegas trip from a businessperson who sold cabinetry and automated smart-home devices. The entrepreneur wanted Englander to help him cozy up to downtown Los Angeles developers who could provide a gold mine of contract opportunities.

The details of how "Businessperson A" (as he is known in FBI documents) courted the councilman, who was a member of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, were salacious: The FBI said Englander tried desperately to cover up the envelopes of cash he accepted in casino bathrooms, plus "female escort services, hotel rooms and expensive meals" on the June, 2017 Vegas trip.

Englander was caught on tape coaching an FBI informant about how to lie during interviews, including what to say about calling an escort service ("I would say, 'I was so drunk I don't remember calling. I didn't arrange anything...'"), according to a transcript released by the FBI. Investigators said Englander and the informant were driving in a car in downtown L.A. during the conversation, and the councilman tried blasting the radio to avoid listening devices.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Walter noted the measures Englander took to hide his corrupt dealings, including using an encrypted messaging service and back-dating a check to Businessperson A to attempt to make it look like he had reimbursed the Vegas trip ahead of the FBI investigation.

Later, "for some unknown reason, he decided to participate in the [FBI] interviews and deliberately lied," Walter said.

But Walter disagreed with prosecutors who alleged the cash and Vegas trip were part of a quid-pro-quo to secure official favors from Englander, and declined to apply enhancements related to abuse of public trust that would have extended the prison sentence to up to two years.

SCOPE OF THE FBI CORRUPTION PROBE

Current L.A. City Councilman John Lee went along on the Vegas trip while he was working in Englander's office, Lee has confirmed. He's believed to be referred to as "City Staffer B" in court documents. Lee has not been charged with a crime, and says he has cooperated with the FBI's investigation. He won a special election in 2019 to represent his former boss' district, and was reelected in November.

Multiple current and former city officials, staff, consultants and lobbyists have agreed to plead guilty in connection to the corruption probe, which centers on former City Councilman José Huizar. Huizar is accused of turning his 14th council district seat into what the feds called a "money-making criminal enterprise," extracting cash, gifts, trips and campaign donations from developers who wanted the former PLUM Committee chairman's help with DTLA projects. Huizar has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for June 22.

Two large developers have cut deals with federal investigators, each paying more than $1 million to avoid prosecution.

Englander first joined the city council in 2011, representing the 12th District, which includes Granada Hills, Northridge and Porter Ranch in the northwestern San Fernando Valley. He announced in fall 2018 he was stepping down from his seat early for a private sector job.

On Monday, Englander told the court he is in therapy to deal with childhood trauma, including his father abandoning the family and he and his mother falling temporarily into homelessness. "I don't offer that as an excuse at all. I take full responsibility," he said.

During a hearing in March, U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins called Englander "one of the symptoms" of a wider corruption problem in city government. Englander was ordered to surrender in June, but there was discussion about that date being pushed back depending on COVID conditions.