LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former LA City Councilman José Huizar has agreed to plead guilty a month before he was scheduled to go on trial in the massive pay-to-play public corruption and racketeering case federal prosecutors brought against him and his circle of associates.
Huizar, 54, agreed to plead guilty to RICO conspiracy and tax evasion, according to the plea deal filed Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles. As part of the agreement, prosecutors won't seek more than 13 years in prison for the once rising star of the LA political scene, though it will be up to the judge how much time he'll have to serve. The maximum penalty he could face is 25 years—20 for racketeering conspiracy and 5 years for tax evasion.
The former councilman was accused of using his control over the approval process for major real-estate projects to solicit bribes and favors from developers. Last November, a Chinese real-estate developer was found guilty of providing over $1 million in bribes to Huizar, including lavish gambling trips to Las Vegas and a $600,000 loan to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, in exchange for his support in getting approval for a planned 77-story mixed-use development in downtown LA.
Huizar 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.
As part of the plea deal, Huizar will forfeit the $129,000 in cash the FBI found hidden in his home, which had come from bribe payments.
Huizar's attorneys didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the plea agreement.
In a superseding indictment returned in November 2020, Huizar was accused of running a criminal enterprise from his City Hall office. Along with Huizar, former LA deputy mayor for economic development Raymond Chan, billionaire Chinese developer Wei Huan and his U.S. company, as well as local developer Dae Yong Lee and his company were charged with participating in the wide-ranging corruption scheme.
The two developers were put on trial and found guilty last year. A key prosecution witness in those trials was Huizar's former special assistant George Esparza, who cut a plea deal early with the government and who told the juries in great detail about Huizar's methods for "milking" developers who wanted to build in downtown LA.
At the trial of Lee last June, Esparza provided jurors with a detailed roadmap of how Huizar routinely used his power to hold up real-estate projects in his district as part of a play-to-pay scheme whereby developers were solicited to provide anything from Katy Perry tickets for Huizar's children, to golf clubs, to campaign contributions to cash payments for his support.
"Let's hit those fuckers up," Huizar would say, according to Esparza. "Let's see if these cows give milk."
At the trial of Huang's U.S. hotel business last November, Esparza told the jury how Huizar and the Chinese billionaire bonded over gambling and prostitutes during numerous visits to Las Vegas. The developer, who didn't come to the U.S. to face the charges, provided Huizar with escorts and tens of thousands of dollars in gambling chips from their first trip together in 2013, the former aide testified, and Huizar was provided with private jets, luxury suites at the Las Vegas casinos, and the best food and wine.
Huang considered Huizar an investment, according to Esparza, and in exchange for the Las Vegas trips, he received full access to Huizar. Specifically, Huang wanted Huizar's assistance for the redevelopment of the LA Grand Hotel into the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, Esparza testified.
It was the gambling trips that put the FBI on Huizar's trail when the Las Vegas Sands alerted the bureau 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 the billionaire, who as a bonafide "high roller" was provided with complimentary accommodations and other freebies by the casinos.
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, according the FBI affidavit in support of a search warrant that opened the door to the racketeering investigation.
In October, Huizar's older brother agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI and to cooperate with the prosecution.
Salvador Huizar, 57, admitted he lied to federal investigators about envelopes with cash he received from his brother on at least 20 occasions and for which he immediately wrote checks back to his brother or arranged to pay his brother's expenses. He was expected to testify at Huizar's trial next month.
This is the full story.
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.