City councilor Jose Huizar, who was in the cloud of a federal corruption investigation, was arrested on June 23, the FBI said. | (AP Photo / Ringo H. W. Chiu)
By JEREMY B. WHITE
Updated 6/23/2020 3:34 PM EDT
OAKLAND – FBI agents arrested Los Angeles City Councilor Jose Huizar on Tuesday for federal blackmail charges related to his alleged involvement in a far-reaching, paid-for corruption program.
Prosecutors believe Huizar and his staff have requested bribes and other financial benefits, such as trips to Las Vegas, from business people outside the town hall, and in turn helped these benefactors advance real estate projects. Benefits that Huizar has reportedly accepted include $ 600,000 in collateral to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.
"This case has pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall," said United States attorney Nick Hanna in a statement. "City councilor Huizar has amazingly violated public trust and has reportedly requested and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from various sources for many years."
A Huizar lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
An affidavit by the FBI puts Huizar at the heart of a years-long pay-to-play system in which financial benefits and political favors flowed between Huizar's orbit and real estate developers, mostly Chinese, with projects in Los Angeles. The prosecutor named the program Operation Casino Loyale.
Prosecutors believe that Huizar and his staff have received cash, including contributions to his re-election campaign, and a glittering selection of luxury hotel stays, sumptuous meals, and tickets to events that they wanted to hide from the government – including making a false application and failing to testify the storage of $ 129,000 in Huizar's apartment that FBI agents found hidden in a closet while searching.
In return, Huizar reportedly submitted applications or voted to advance his benefactor's projects while pressuring other city officials, unions and developers to support real estate development. The events occurred when Huizar's district experienced a "historic real estate boom," according to the affidavit, and Huizar was able to enrich himself by leading the city's planning and land use committee. A well-known Chinese billionaire who wanted to build the tallest building west of the Mississippi is said to have given Huizar $ 800,000 in financial benefits.
"Mr. Huizar was able to give preferential treatment to those who paid because most of the development in recent years has been focused on his district," Hanna said in a press conference. "He decided which projects lived and which projects died."
The affidavit details that Huizar wants to get promised campaign contributions from developers with upcoming business before the committee. He reportedly tabled resolutions praising executives who contributed money and tried to communicate that developers who didn't stick to it could see their projects undermined.
The federal lawsuit also claims that Huizar used the system to try to choose a relative to succeed him on the city council because Huizar was eyeing a city-wide office, which the affidavit represents as an attempt to continue the system that Huizar remains in power and the money flow remains. Huizar and his staff reportedly set up a political action committee to empower relatives and then asked for donations.
The federal investigation had already seduced four other people. This included former Los Angeles City Council member Mitch Englander and former Huizar employee George Esparza, who served as chief of staff for meeting member Wendy Carrillo (D-Boyle Heights) this year but no longer works for the meeting.
Englander has agreed to plead guilty to hindering a federal investigation. Esparza pleaded guilty earlier this year and admitted an ongoing program to trade business favors in front of City Hall for political support.
The investigation into Huizar and his staff has long cast a shadow over Los Angeles City Hall. City Council President Nury Martinez said the arrest was "not unexpected" and compared the probe to "a dark cloud over our city government". She said she would remove him from office.
"It is our duty and we have to do it," Martinez said in a statement.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this report, the name of the operation was incorrect. It's Operation Casino Loyale.