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BY LIBBY DENKMANN/LAist
Originally published on May 27, 2020
A former top deputy to L.A. City Councilman José Huízar has agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge, while the FBI says he played a central role in a “criminal organization” at City Hall.
George Esparza, who worked for Huízar until the end of 2017, is now the chief of staff to California Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo, whose district represents parts of northeastern Los Angeles and East L.A.
The U.S. Attorney’s office says Esparza, along with an unnamed city councilmember, took over a dozen trips to Las Vegas and Australia — and accepted over $200,000 in gambling chips — furnished by a Chinese billionaire whose real estate company built projects in Los Angeles. The company was also planning an addition to the L.A. skyline: a new 77-story skyscraper, the tallest west of the Mississippi.
Investigators say Esparza also helped facilitate cash gifts from that real estate tycoon and others — including $600,000 to settle a 2013 sexual harassment lawsuit against the unnamed councilmember.
The wider scheme involved city officials, developers and their associates who conspired to exchange bribes of cash and gifts for a leg up for development projects. Help from the unnamed “Councilmember A” included committee votes, political pressure and labor negotiations, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. The operation, dubbed the “CD-A Enterprise” in court filings, also allegedly laundered money to hide the dirty deals.
A YEARS-LONG INVESTIGATION
The FBI’s years-long investigation has centered on activity by the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management, or PLUM, Committee, the powerful body developers must navigate to get projects built in Los Angeles. In charging documents, the agency also said Councilmember A worked to funnel ill-gotten money to the political campaign of a family member who was running to succeed them in office.
Huízar was the chair of the PLUM Committee until he was stripped of committee assignments in 2018. His wife, Richelle Huízar, scrapped her campaign to represent Council District 14 after the FBI raided Councilman Huizar’s home and office in November 2018. In 2014, a former city employee in Huizar’s office agreed to an undisclosed settlement to end her complaint of sexual harassment and retaliation.
José Huízar has not been charged with a crime.
So far this year, three other men have agreed to plead guilty to at least one felony charge in connection to a wide-ranging FBI probe into corruption at city hall. Documents released with Esparza’s plea agreement today indicate all three were somehow connected to the “CD-A Enterprise” criminal operation.
- Former Councilmember Mitch Englander, who lied about accepting cash and a lavish Vegas vacation, among other perks, from a businessman
- A Mar Vista fundraiser and real estate appraiser, Justin Jangwoo Kim, who helped coordinated a $500,000 bribe to an unnamed councilmember
- George Chiang, a Granada Hills real estate developer, who helped bribe public officials to clear the way for development projects
“The indictment that came down today sickens me,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “Public service is an honor, and anybody who takes public service and uses that to enrich themselves bespoils this place, the people’s house.”
“If you did anything wrong — be prepared to pay the price,” Garcetti added.
Earlier this month, L.A. City Council President Nury Martínez sent a letter to Huízar requesting that he not attend any more meetings until there’s “legal clarity” into his involvement in the alleged bribery scheme. Since then, a number of city leaders, including fellow councilmembers, have called on him to resign.
As part of the deal, Esparza has agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
READ THE INDICTMENT HERE
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.