Sentencing for ousted LA City Councilman José Huizar coming Friday

By FRED SHUSTER | City News Service

Disgraced former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar faces sentencing on Friday, Jan. 25, for using his powerful position at City Hall to shake down real estate developers for at least $1.5 million in cash and benefits in exchange for help driving downtown real estate projects through the city’s approval process, and for cheating on his taxes.

Huizar, 55, of Boyle Heights, pleaded guilty a year ago to federal counts of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and tax evasion.

Related: LA developer linked to Jose Huizar’s bribery circle gets six years in prison

Federal prosecutors are seeking a 13-year prison sentence and payment of more than $1 million in restitution to the city of Los Angeles. Huizar’s attorney countered that nine years behind bars would be sufficient. The final determination Friday is up to U.S. District Judge John Walter in Los Angeles federal court.

Huizar represented Council District 14, which includes downtown Los Angeles and its surrounding communities, from 2005 until his resignation in 2020. According to his lawyers, Huizar was “an evangelist for robust development” in efforts to ensure Los Angeles was befitting of a “world-class city.”

In his plea agreement, Huizar admitted to leading the so-called CD-14 Enterprise, which operated as a pay-to-play scheme in which Huizar — assisted by others — unlawfully used his office to give favorable treatment to real estate developers who financed and facilitated cash bribes, campaign donations and other illicit benefits.

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“For years, defendant operated his pay-to-play scheme in the city of Los Angeles to monetize his public position and leverage his political clout for over $1.5 million dollars in cash bribes, gambling chips, luxury trips, political contributions, prostitutes, extravagant meals, services, concerts, and other gifts,” according to a memo filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. “If anyone dared rebuff his call to pay bribes, he punished them and their city projects, threatening developers with indefinitely delayed projects and financial peril.”

Huizar also admitted to accepting a $600,000 bribe payment in the form of a “loan” from China-based billionaire real estate developer Wei Huang for use to secretly settle a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against Huizar by a former staffer.

Huang’s downtown Los Angeles-based company was found guilty in 2022 of paying more than $1 million in bribes — including luxury trip expenses, casino gambling chips and the sham loan — to the then-councilman to obtain city approval to build a 77-story mixed-use skyscraper downtown. Huang, who owns a house in San Marino, was also charged in the case but is considered a fugitive believed to be in China, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Related: A guide to corruption cases in LA City Hall: now, it’s Mark Ridley-Thomas

Members and associates of the CD-14 Enterprise also included lobbyists, consultants, and other city officials and staffers, who sought to personally enrich themselves and their families and associates in exchange for official acts. They included George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant, real estate development consultant George Chiang, political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim, and lobbyist Morrie Goldman, among others. Each pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation.

Huizar “covered his tracks with layers of concealment, including by shamelessly exploiting his elderly mother, brother and wife to launder his illicit proceeds. Finally, when defendant felt the walls of the instant federal investigation closing in on him, he made the calculated decision to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses and lying to government prosecutors and agents,” according to federal prosecutors.

In return for Huizar’s guilty plea to the two felony counts, prosecutors are seeking no more than 13 years in prison for the ex-councilman, who agreed to forfeit $129,000 in cash that law enforcement found during a search of his home in November 2018. Huizar also agreed to accept a nine-year prison term.

“Five years from now, the only people who will remember whether Mr. Huizar got 9, 10, or 13 years will be the parties and his family, the latter of whom will grow up, grow old and die in his absence,” Huizar’s attorneys wrote in court papers. “For everyone else, specific memories will fade, and even with a nine-year sentence, the lasting message will be that Mr. Huizar confessed and received a lengthy term in prison.”

Huizar’s co-defendant, former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, who was general manager of the Department of Building and Safety before becoming the city’s deputy mayor of economic development, was charged with racketeering conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and other counts for allegedly helping Huizar in the bribery scheme.

Chan’s trial is set for Feb. 27. A mistrial was declared in his first trial after his attorney, Harland Braun, was taken ill and could not continue appearing in court.

In a related case, Huizar’s brother, Salvador Huizar, 57, of Boyle Heights, pleaded guilty in October 2022 to lying to federal investigators about accepting cash from his brother on numerous occasions and immediately writing checks back to him or arranging to pay his expenses. Salvador Huizar’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for August.

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