LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar was an "investment" for a Chinese real-estate developer who sought to construct the tallest tower west of the Mississippi in downtown LA, Huizar's former aide testified at the developer's bribery trial.
George Esparza, Huizar's former special assistant, is the star witness in the Justice Department's takedown of the pay-to-play scheme the councilman is accused of running in his downtown district, using his position as chairman of the city's influential Planning and Land Use Management Committee to seek bribes from developers who wanted to set up projects during an unprecedented building boom in downtown LA.
Esparza testified Tuesday at the trial of Shen Zhen New World I LLC, a U.S. subsidiary of billionaire Wei Huang's real-estate empire, which owns two hotel in the LA area. Huang, a resident of Shenzhen, China, was also indicted by federal prosecutors in the bribery scheme but hasn't come to the U.S. to face charges.
Huang, often referred to as "the chairman" during Esparza's testimony, began entertaining Huizar on all-expenses-paid gambling trips, including private jets, luxury suites, spa and escort services, starting in 2013. Huang also posted $600,000 in collateral so that Huizar could take out a bank loan in 2014 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former aide that was threatening to destroy his political career ahead of a 2015 reelection campaign.
When he asked Huang's close associate Ricky Zheng why the chairman was doing all this for Huizar, the answer was "you give, give, give until one day you have a big ask," Esparza told the jury.
"The chairman saved José Huizar's career," Esparza said. "He was the chairman's investment."
The harassment lawsuit by his former deputy chief of staff had made Huizar very concerned, according to Esparza, because people started to abandon him and he was facing a powerful challenger for his council seat. This prompted Esparza to reach out to Zheng to see if Huang could help. It was important to keep Huang's involvement very discreet because of the conflict of interest his assistance would create, Esparza.
The money was eventually channeled to a bank in the U.S. through an intermediary company set up for that purpose, Esparza said. But according to the former aide, Huizar never planned to repay Huang.
"He never paid for anything," Esparza said. "He wasn't going to pay back $500,000."
Following Huizar's reelection the following year, they went on a celebratory trip to Las Vegas with Huang and Zheng where Huizar thanked the chairman for the loan that saved his career, Esparza said. Huang called it the most expensive "pussy" he had ever paid, according to the former aide.
In January of 2016, Huizar and Esparza joined Huang and his entourage on a week's trip to Australia, with the Chinese billionaire again paying for all their expenses, including Huizar's $10,980 business class fare. On the trip, Huang again provided chips for them to gamble with at casinos and, as in Las Vegas, Huizar kept some of them aside to cash in later, according to Esparza.
When they were back in the U.S., Huizar tasked Esparza to exchange tens of thousands in Australian dollars for him, but to do so without leaving a paper trail. This meant, Esparza said, he had to exchange it in smaller amounts at various places, while Huizar texted him to get a fractionally higher exchange rate, $0.688 rather than $0.68 per Australian dollar, if he could.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har, Esparza told the jury that Huang's generosity and assistance had made him a friend of the councilman's office and that his requests were their top priority. This including help with Szen Zhen New World's LA Grand hotel downtown, such as resolving a conflict with an union and a conflict with a valet parking business.
The chairman could request and get meetings with Huizar at City Hall with just hours notice at the same time the council was in session, a deference that was never extended to anybody else, Esparza said.
In August of 2016, Esparza testified he scheduled a meeting with city leaders and representatives of Szen Zhen New World to present their plan for a 77-floor hotel and condominium tower at the site of the Grand LA. Huizar made it very clear he was going to support the project in his district, including using his position on the PLUM Committee to facilitate the rezoning of the property for the added height, according to Esparza.
Huang told them he wanted the LA Grand redevelopment to be his "big dick" in LA, and it was very important for Huizar to deliver on his promised support, Esparza said.
"This was the big ask, yes," Esparza testified.
Richard Steingard, one of the lawyers representing Shen Zhen New World, said in his opening statement this past week that the company doesn't deny the trips and entertainment it provided to Huizar, but that it was all paid for by the casinos who provided it for free to Huang and his entourage because of the money he spent gambling.
Moreover, the lawyer said, Huang would visit Las Vegas with large groups of guests and "stake the table" so that his guests would gamble with chips he provided for them and kept their winnings if they were lucky. When Huizar got invited, he received the same generosity Huang had provided to his other guests, Steingard said.
As for the $600,000 loan, the developer only posted the collateral with the bank so that Huizar could take out a loan and settle the harassment lawsuit, according to the lawyer's opening statement. The transaction was fully documented and vetted by a lawyer to make sure it was legal, Steingard said, and it wasn't a gift and had nothing to do with the LA Grand Hotel redevelopment.
In fact, according to Steingard, there was no need to bribe anyone to get the project approved because when the idea for the redevelopment was first presented to LA city leaders in 2016, everyone loved it. There was no evidence that Huang ever asked for anything of consequence from Huizar related to the project, the attorney said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.