Suspended L.A. City Councilmember José Huizar leaves federal court in downtown Los Angeles. He appeared along with federal public defenders for a trial setting hearing on Aug. 4, 2020. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

A Chinese real-estate developer was found guilty Thursday of bribing José Huízar with cash and lavish trips in exchange for the former Councilmember’s help in obtaining approval for a high-rise development in downtown Los Angeles.

Courthouse News Service reported that it took the jury about three hours of deliberation to return a verdict, finding Shen Zhen New World LLC I guilty of eight counts, including honest services wire fraud, interstate and foreign travel in aid of bribery, and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds.

The company is a U.S. subsidiary of China-based Shenzhen New World Group and is owned by Wei Huang, who owned a home in Los Angeles County but fled the country in 2018 after he learned that Huízar was being investigated by federal authorities.  Huang was indicted along with his company but has never returned to face charges; he is believed to be in China.

After the verdict was read, a prosecutor said the company faces a multimillion dollar fine at sentencing in January. An attorney for the developer said it will likely appeal the verdict.

In the trial, which began Oct. 27, federal prosecutors alleged that Huang and his company sought to buy the help of Huízar, who presided over the city’s powerful planning committee and who the Department of Justice accuses of running a profitable pay-for-play scheme in downtown LA.

Prosecutors alleged that Huang gave Huízar $1 million in bribes, including $250,000 in gambling chips and a $600,000 loan to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that the politician never paid back.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a thick trial memo written by federal prosecutors offered dramatic new details about Huízar’s relationship with Huang – including that the councilmember was treated to as many as 19 all-expenses-paid gambling trips to Las Vegas between 2013 and 2018, where he stayed in luxury suites, dined at the most expensive restaurants and was given his pick of prostitutes. Huang also treated Huízar to a one-week gambling vacation to Australia.

In exchange, the developer expected the powerful councilmember to push through the approval process for a commercial and residential project that would have converted the L.A. Grand Hotel –which he bought in 2011– into the largest skyscraper west of the Mississippi.

Lawyers for the developer claimed during the trial that while it was true that Huízar took trips with Huang, the benefits received by the councilman were freebies given by the casinos to the billionaire developer, a high-stakes gambler, which he shared with his guests.  Lawyers also claimed unsuccessfully that the developer did not need to bribe Huízar to get his project approved, because the high-rise project had the approval of several city officials.

Fireworks at the 2-week trial

During the two-week trial, prosecutors presented evidence that revealed new details about Huízar’s character, including his affinity for gambling and prostitutes, and how he allegedly used close family members and his now estranged wife, Richelle Rios, to launder the bribe money.

On opening day, prosecutors said that Huang allegedly provided Huízar and his special assistant George Esparza with a “lineup of prostitutes for their choosing” during the trips to Las Vegas, adding that “it would become a recurring theme of their trips together.”

Esparza, the government’s star witness in the three separate trials stemming from the City Hall pay-for-play scheme, testified that Huang and Huízar bonded over gambling and prostitutes during their trips together.

Esparza told of a first trip in 2013, during which Huízar and other guests were treated to prostitutes. He said that long after the others men had reassembled in the hotel lobby, Huízar remained in his room with a prostitute. When the group went to the room to check on Huízar, the woman he had been with came out shouting “water, water, water” –presumably because the councilman had worn her out, Esparza said– and Huízar emerged triumphantly in his robe.

After that, Esparza testified, “water, water, water” became an inside joke and code for prostitutes between Huang and Huízar. Esparza also testified that he helped Huízar hide and carry out expensive bottles of wine given to him by Huang, and that the councilmember stole towels from Las Vegas hotels.

In 2020, Esparza pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge and agreed to testify against his former boss.

Mother, brother and wife testify

Huízar’s 83-year-old mother, his older brother and his wife were among 14 witnesses for the prosecution that testified at the trial.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the mother, Isidra Huizar, testified in Spanish that her son would occasionally ask her for blank checks in return for cash.  Bank records presented as evidence showed that she deposited $13,000 to her account shortly after the trip to Australia in January 2016 and days later wrote checks for him, including a $7,730 check made out to her son’s credit card account. The woman said she did not remember making out those checks.

Last month Salvador Huízar, the 57-year-old brother, pleaded guilty to one charge of lying to federal authorities and agreed to cooperate in the investigation against the councilmember. During trial, Salvador testified that José, 54, gave him cash that he then deposited into his bank account and exchanged for checks written out to his younger brother from his account.

Salvador told the jury that one time, in August 2014, José gave him $10,000 in bundled hundred-dollar bills in exchange for a check. When asked by a prosecutor if he ever questioned his brother about why they had to do those exchanges, Salvador responded that José said it was “better for me to not know.”

Rios, 53, said that she suspected that her husband was involved in an extramarital affair before learning, in Aug. 2013, that he was being sued by a former employee who accused him sexual harrasment. At the time, Huízar was planning to run for a third and final term representing the 14th district, which includes downtown, Boyle Heights and several Northeast communities.

Rios, who is not being charged with any crime, said she was called to a meeting with her husband, Huang and then-Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan –who is accused of wrongdoing and facing trial with Huízar. Rios said the three men wanted to know if she would stay in the marriage. Rios, who reportedly sobbed while testifying, said she was “angry, devastated and humiliated” but agreed to stay with her husband and help him get reelected.

Richelle Huízar and José Huízar in undated Twitter photo.

In 2018 Rios launched a campaign to take over her husband’s council seat but dropped out that same year after the FBI raided the couple’s home in Boyle Heights.

During the trial Rios also testified that several cash deposits of $500 and $1000 to her account were of money given to her by her husband. She said that she found a half-inch stack of $100 bills in the house shortly after one of the first trips to Las Vegas —which led to an argument between the two– and that she later found an inch-thick pile of $100 bills inside a money belt hidden in the pocket of one of Huízar’s jackets.

What happens in Vegas, is told to the FBI

During the trial it was revealed that the FBI first became aware of the bond between the Chinese billionaire and the Boyle Heights politician when Las Vegas Sands alerted the federal agency that Huízar had been a frequent guest of Huang at the Palazzo Hotel in 2014 and 2015, and that Huízar had received about $79,000 in gambling chips from Huang.

During one of the trips, in July 2015, the Las Vegas hotel researched Huízar and learned that he was a Los Angeles councilmember –which meant he was required to fill out forms to show he was gambling with his own money. When an employee asked Huízar to fill out the paperwork, he declined and was escorted out of the casino, leaving behind $17,800 in chips.

Other witnesses testified that the incident forced Huízar and Huang to be more circumspect about their dealings, but that did not stop their relationship or their bonding over gambling and paid women.

Next: Huízar goes to trial

The trial against Huang’s company is the second of three stemming from a 34-count indictment handed down by a grand jury in 2020, accusing six defendants of bribery, fraud and money laundering to further the City Hall criminal enterprise.

In June, developer Dae Yong Lee and his business, 940 Hill LLC, were found guilty of bribery, honest services fraud and obstructing a government investigation. Lee, 57, faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

A trial date for Huízar and co-defendant Raymond Chan is now set for February 21. The two face charges of racketeering conspiracy, bribery and honest services fraud, among others.

This week, as the trial against Huang’s company wrapped up, Huízar posted on his Instagram account an illustration of St. Jude, believed by some faithful catholics to be the patron saint of lost causes. It was his first publication on Instagram since an illustration of El Santo Niño de Atocha, a revered image of the baby Jesus, which he posted shortly before the indictment was handed out in 2020.

The trial happened at a time when Huízar’s successor on the City Council, Kevin de León, is himself mired in controversy and calls for resignation, stemming from a leaked recording of a private conversation between him and three other people, that included racist comments.

Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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