Los Angeles councilman charged in 'staggering' bribery scheme

When federal agents searched Jose Huizar's home in November 2018, they recovered $129,000 in cash hidden in a closet, according to a criminal complaint.
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Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar at a council hearing in 2015.Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

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By Andrew Blankstein and Rich Schapiro

A Los Angeles councilman was charged Tuesday with accepting bribes from a host of developers, including a Chinese billionaire, as part of a sweeping “pay-to-play” scheme, authorities said.

Jose Huizar, 61, was arrested at his home on a federal racketeering charge amid an ongoing FBI corruption probe, according to federal prosecutors in California.

]Huizar is accused of turning his city council seat into what U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna described as a “money-making criminal enterprise that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles.”

Huizar accepted illicit cash from developers in exchange for help in securing approvals for major real estate projects, according to the criminal complaint.

In one case, Huizar received $600,000 from an unidentified Chinese billionaire who runs a global real estate firm and who owns a hotel in Huizar’s district, the complaint says.

The money was provided as collateral to help Huizar settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a former staffer, according to the complaint.

The Chinese billionaire also provided Huizar with “direct and indirect financial benefits” on more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas casinos, which included rides on private jets and stays at posh villas, according to the criminal complaint.

In all, the developer doled out more than $800,000 in benefits in exchange for the councilman’s help in his ambitious plan to redevelop his property and build the tallest building west of the Mississippi, according to an affidavit.

When federal agents searched Huizar's home in November 2018, the criminal complaint says, they found about $129,000 in cash hidden in a closet. Some of the money was concealed in red envelopes with Chinese characters, according to the complaint.

Agents found cash in red envelopes with Chinese characters.U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

“This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” said Hanna. “Councilman Huizar violated the public trust to a staggering degree, allegedly soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from multiple sources over many years.”

Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who served on the L.A. City Council from 2001 to 2009, described the case as a “multimillion-dollar bribery scheme.”

“It would be breathtaking at the highest levels of government in America, but the fact is that is the amount of cash that was being thrown around to lubricate business and real estate approvals in a city,” Weiss said.

Huizar appeared in federal court in Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon and was ordered released on a $100,000 bond. His attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

The ongoing FBI corruption probe has already swept up a former aide to Huizar, a real estate consultant, a political fundraiser and former City Council Member Mitchell Englander.

Englander faces up to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstructing a public corruption investigation related to his acceptance of gifts — including cash, hotel rooms and expensive meals — from a developer during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs in 2017.

Huizar, who served as chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and a member of the Economic Development Committee, was elected in 2005 to the Los Angeles City Council representing District 14, which includes the development-rich downtown area. He was re-elected three times to four-year terms, the last of which was due to end this year because of term limits.

The FBI began investigating Huizar in August 2015 for soliciting and accepting bribes and kickbacks from a developer in Las Vegas. The Bureau has interviewed more than 75 people uncovering a web of bribery, mail and wire fraud, extortion, money laundering interstate and foreign travel in aid of the racketeering enterprise and obstruction of justice.