LOS ANGELES (CN) — A billionaire Chinese real-estate developer had no intention to bribe former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar with lavish gambling trips to Las Vegas or with arranging a $600,000 loan for him, an attorney for Shen Zhen New World I LLC told a federal jury who will decide whether the U.S. subsidiary of developer Wei Huang is guilty of bribery.
"Giving a public official chips isn't bribery," Craig Wilke said during his closing argument Wednesday. "Providing collateral for a loan isn't bribery — Wei Huang must have intended for José Huizar to act for the benefit of LA Grand Hotel," the 77-story skyscraper Huang sought to build in downtown LA.
The attorney argued at the end of the two-week trial that federal prosecutors had failed to provide any reliable evidence that Huang intended for Huizar to take any official steps to help him build what was supposed to be the tallest tower west of the Mississippi at the site of the downtown hotel he acquired in 2010. Nor did Huizar undertake any official acts to further Huang's redevelopment project, according to Wilke.
The trial against Shen Zhen New World is the second in a series of three resulting from the FBI's investigation of the alleged pay-to-play scheme Huizar ran to solicit bribes from real-estate developers in exchange for advancing their projects through the city's approval process. A Korean-American investor and developer has already been convicted at trial of paying a $500,000 bribe for Huizar's assistance, and the former politician is scheduled to go on trial himself early next year.
Huizar, 54, served as downtown LA's representative on the City Council from 2005 to 2020, a period that saw an unprecedented development boom in the area with foreign money pouring into ambitious residential and hotel projects. He also chaired the city's influential Planning and Land Use Management Committee until November 2018, when the FBI raided his offices and home. He was the first sitting elected LA official to face federal racketeering charges.
Huang, often referred to as Chairman Huang during the trial, was also indicted by the Justice Department but hasn't come to the U.S. to answer to the charges. The head of China-based Shenzhen New World Group left the U.S. after the FBI raids and is considered a fugitive, according to the prosecution.
"Ask yourself when you go back into the jury room where is Wei Huang," Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Jamari Buxton told the jurors during the government's rebuttal argument. "Wei Huang is in China, and he's in China because he didn't want to face you."
The FBI became aware of the intimate friendship between the Chinese billionaire and the LA politician when Las Vegas Sands alerted the agency that Huizar had been a frequent guest of Huang at the Palazzo Hotel in 2014 and 2015 and that Huizar had received about $79,000 in gambling chips from Huang.
During a July 2015 trip to Las Vegas as a guest of Huang, the Palazzo researched Huizar and learned that he was a LA councilman, which makes him a "politically exposed person" required to fill out forms to show he's gambling with his own money and not the government's. When a Palazzo employee asked Huizar to fill out the required paperwork, he declined and was escorted out of the hotel's gambling area. He left $17,800 in chips he had gotten from Huang at the high-rollers parlor where they had been gambling.
Testimony by former aides of Huang and Huizar during the trial showed that after that incident, Huizar and Huang became more circumspect but it didn't end their relationship that was based on their love of gambling and women.
The government claims that Huang bought two hotels in LA in 2010 and 2011 that he wanted to redevelop in ambitious projects. He was put in touch with Huizar who was the "king of downtown" and who, through the power he exercised on the city's PLUM committee, could advance, stall or kill such large-scale projects.
Starting in 2013, Huang would invite Huizar to as many as 19 gambling trips to Las Vegas where they stayed in luxury villas, enjoyed extravagant meals and the most expensive wines, all comped for by the casinos who were keen to keep the billionaire coming back to gamble, and where Huang provided prostitutes for Huizar to pick from.
"Wei Huang cultivated and groomed a corrupt relationship with José Huizar," Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har said in her closing statement. "He intended to buy José Huizar's help."
According to government, in exchange for the all-expenses paid Las Vegas outings and more than $200,000 in gambling chips over the 19 trips, as well as the $600,000 Huizar needed to settle an sexual harassment lawsuit ahead of his 2015 reelection campaign and an extravagant trip to Australia, Huang got unlimited access to Huizar as a "friend of the office" and the help he asked for on his downtown hotel, which was to be his "big dick" over LA.
Wilke in his closing argument reiterated that everything Huizar did for Huang was above board and that there was no need for the billionaire to bribe Huizar because the planned redevelopment of his hotel was widely supported by city officials.
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