José Huizar has presided over Downtown Los Angeles during its emergence as a neighborhood for wealthy locals and tourists, holding more sway over what gets built than anyone else, other than, perhaps, the developers themselves. Huizar, who grew up just outside Downtown in Boyle Heights, was elected to represent both areas on the Los Angeles City Council in 2005. He has staked a large part of his legacy on making the Broadway corridor the heart of Downtown, reopening old movie palaces and attracting businesses like the Ace Hotel, which opened in 2014, and Eggslut, which opened in Grand Central Market in 2013.
Huizar has not been charged in a federal corruption case that’s unfolding in Los Angeles, but he’s the only person who matches the details in court documents describing an L.A. lawmaker, identified as “Councilmember A,” who took a cash bribe from Downtown developers in exchange for help getting rid of opposition to their plans.
From a videoconference broadcast to a courtroom in the federal courthouse on June 3, Justin Jangwoo Kim, a real-estate appraiser and former City Planning commissioner, pleaded guilty to fixing the bribe: $400,000 in cash, collected in a paper bag. The courthouse, fenced off because of protests over police violence, and closed to the public because of the pandemic, was almost entirely empty, as Kim remotely entered his plea.
George Esparza, whom the Los Angeles Times has described as one of Huizar’s closest aides, has also agreed to plead guilty to racketeering as part of what the U.S. attorney has described as a “pay-to-play bribery scheme.” In a plea agreement Esparza signed on May 21, he is described as a city employee and a special assistant for Councilmember A, for whom Esparza admits helping Kim arrange the bribe.
Also pleading guilty — to falsifying facts during the FBI investigation — is a second City Council member, Mitch Englander, who represented a swath of the San Fernando Valley from 2011 until 2018.
Huizar is not named in any plea agreements, but based on their conclusions regarding the details in the court records, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles City Council president Nury Martinez asked him to resign on May 28, saying details in those filings are “disgusting.”
The corruption probe has proved, in sordid detail, that at least two Los Angeles City Council members were not working for average Angelenos. As court records make clear, they were working for companies that can afford to withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and hand it off in a paper bag like a $15 takeout meal.
The development company referred to in the court documents is a limited-liability corporation named 940 S. Hill LLC that has three managers listed in state business records: Dae Lee, Jeong Kim, and Hyuk Lim, three Fashion District merchants. (This is the limit of Jeong Kim’s involvement, as described in court records; all other references in the story are to Justin Jangwoo Kim.) An appeal had been filed against their plans to build a high-rise with 232 condominiums on Hill Street, and they wanted Councilmember A to get that appeal dropped.
The councilmember was down to help make the appeal go away — at a price. In a series of meetings that took place in cars, a coffee shop, bowling alley, hotel, and karaoke bar in 2016 and 2017, Kim helped negotiate the sum — an aid for the councilmember initially wanted $1.4 million and agreed to $400,000. (The developer would later tack on an additional $100,000.) The bribe was handed over in February 2017. The condominium plans were approved two months later by the City Planning department, but construction has not started.
Toward the end of the June 3 hearing, U.S. Central District Court judge John Walter asked Kim if he had done all of these things, and Kim responded demurely: “Yes, I did.” As part of a plea agreement, he must cooperate with federal officials as they continue investigating corruption and “pay-to-play” real-estate deals with elected officials in the city of Los Angeles.
Some of the details that investigators have uncovered — escorts and Lakers-game tickets and greed, clandestine meetings, and cover-ups — belong in the plot of a great noir, a genre that has fictionalized some of L.A.’s ugliest truths. But unlike the movies, no one is watching as the Department of Justice slowly but publicly untangles how some wealthy developers get their projects approved.
It’s unknown at this point exactly how many deals like this the councilmember put together (others have been described in court records), but Kim had a long-term vision for building up a lucrative development operation in Downtown L.A., and it hinged on the councilmember, who Kim referred to as his “boss.” Together, they were plotting a succession plan, with Kim agreeing to find an unidentified “associate” who would form a political action committee supporting the councilmember’s unnamed relative in a bid to replace him when he terms out this year.
The succession plan is one of the key details in the court documents that seems to point directly to Huizar: The filings say a relative of Councilmember A announced her candidacy to succeed him in September 2018. They also say that Councilmember A was the chair of the City Council’s planning and land-use-management committee.
The timeline matches Huizar’s own: In September 2018, Huizar’s wife, Richelle, announced a campaign to replace her husband, but she dropped out of the race two months later after the FBI raided their Boyle Heights home. Huizar also chaired that committee from July 2013 to November 2018, when he was stripped of all committee assignments. Huizar’s attorney declined to comment for this story.
Kim, who resigned from the L.A. City Planning commission in 2011, has donated to the campaigns for a majority of the current City Council, including Mitch O’Farrell, Herb Wesson, Paul Krekorian, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Huizar. He was also a business associate of George Chiang’s. (Chiang is another development consultant and real-estate broker from the San Gabriel Valley who has agreed to plead guilty in a separate case tied to the corruption investigation.)
According to the FBI, Chiang connected Councilmember A, again widely believed to be Huizar, to a Chinese developer, who the Real Deal has identified as Shenzhen Hazens Real Estate Group. Together, Chiang and the developer arranged a trip to Hong Kong and China for the councilmember and his family, agreed to contribute $100,000 to his relative’s election campaign, and gave tickets to Lakers games to his aides. In exchange, the councilmember helped get the developer’s plans for a W hotel and 435 condominiums near L.A. Live approved, including writing a motion needed to clear the plans through the Huizar-chaired planning and land-use-management committee.
Huizar has given no indication that he will give up his seat before his term ends. He seems to have enjoyed the power, even just the appearance of it. In an email to one of his aides on December 15, 2015, he wrote, “Just a reminder to commit and follow up when people ask me to be on honorary committee. For events even when I am not attending. I just saw that practically all of councilmembers were on HOPE honorary committee and I wasn’t.” The aid, Mayra Alvarez, sued him in 2018, claiming wrongful termination. Copies of emails and text messages contained in the lawsuit, which has not been resolved, show how Huizar treated her, constantly demanding cups of tea, almost always without saying please or thank you. One text thread reads only:
Huizar and Englander, the other Los Angeles councilmember implicated in the investigation, served on the planning and land-use-management committee for more than five years. Englander stepped down from the council two years ago to work for a sports and entertainment company. After he resigned, the FBI accused him of trying to cover up gifts and trips he took with real-estate developers.
As part of his plea agreement, he has admitted to taking a trip to Las Vegas in 2017 with an unnamed real-estate developer, lobbyist, and an unidentified business executive who worked with developers. They paid for his hotel room, $34,000 in bottle service, and ordered him an escort. At one point, the business executive gave Englander an envelope with $10,000 in cash in a casino bathroom.
Later, after the FBI had begun questioning Englander and the business executive, the two drove around Downtown L.A. in Englander’s car while the councilmember allegedly coached the executive on how to lie to investigators, like a scene out of a political thriller. If they asked about escorts and checked his phone records, Englander told him to say, “I was so drunk I don’t remember calling,’ or ‘I don’t remember, maybe I called the wrong number.’”