A city councilor in Los Angeles was accused on Tuesday of accepting bribes from a variety of developers, including a Chinese billionaire, as part of a comprehensive pay-to-play program.
61-year-old Jose Huizar was arrested at his home in California on charges of federal blackmail under an ongoing FBI corruption investigation, according to the California Attorney General.
Huizar is accused of having turned his city council seat into a company that US attorney Nick Hanna described as a "money-making criminal company that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles".
According to the lawsuit, Huizar accepted illegal money from developers in return for obtaining permits for large real estate projects.
In one case, Huizar received $ 600,000 from an unidentified Chinese billionaire who runs a global real estate company and owns a hotel in Huizar's district, the complaint said.
The money was provided as security to help Huizar resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee.
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The Chinese billionaire also granted Huizar "direct and indirect financial benefits" for more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas casinos, including private jet trips and posh villa stays, according to the lawsuit.
In total, the developer donated more than $ 800,000 in benefits in return for helping the city council help with its ambitious plan to redevelop its property and build the tallest building west of the Mississippi, according to an affidavit.
When federal agents ransacked Huizar's house in November 2018, they found around $ 129,000 hidden in a closet, according to the lawsuit. According to the complaint, part of the money was hidden in red envelopes with Chinese characters.
"This case has pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption in the town hall," said Hanna. "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."
Jack Weiss, a former federal attorney who served on the LA City Council from 2001 to 2009, described the case as a "multi-million dollar bribe program."
"It would be breathtaking at the highest levels of government in America, but the fact is that it is the amount of cash that was thrown around to lubricate city and real estate permits," Weiss said.
Huizar appeared before a federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon and was released for a $ 100,000 bond. His lawyer could not be reached immediately for comment.
The ongoing FBI corruption investigation has already swept a former Huizar aide, a real estate advisor, a political fundraiser, and a former city council member Mitchell Englander.
Englander may face up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to a public corruption investigation into accepting a developer's gifts – including cash, hotel rooms, and expensive meals – while traveling to Las Vegas and Palm Springs in 2017 to have hindered.
Huizar, who served as chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and a member of the Economic Development Committee, was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2005, which represents District 14, which includes the high-development downtown area. He was re-elected three to four years, with the last term ending due to term limits this year.
The FBI began investigating Huizar in August 2015 to receive and accept bribes and setbacks from a developer in Las Vegas. The Bureau interviewed more than 75 people who uncovered a network of bribery, mail and wire fraud, extortion, money laundering between international and foreign trips to support the company and hinder the judiciary.