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Evidence that ‘opened door’ to LA City Hall bribery scheme kept in play

José Huizar's suspicious gambling trips with a Chinese real-estate developer prompted the search warrant that got the bribery probe rolling.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar failed to convince a federal judge that evidence collected by the FBI during a 2016 search warrant that "opened the doors" on a massive bribery scheme shouldn't be allowed at trial.

Huizar's lawyer Charles Snyder argued at a hearing Monday that, if the 2016 warrant for three years of emails from Huizar's personal Yahoo email account was invalidated, subsequent warrants based on what the FBI learned from these emails should also be thrown out, decimating the government's case against the former councilman.

U.S. District Judge John Walter wasn't persuaded and said the search warrant was supported by "ample" probable cause. Specifically, he rejected the argument there was not sufficient evidence that Huizar had any influence over Wei Huang, the president and chairman of Chinese real-estate developer Shen Zhen New World who wined and dined Huizar on gambling trips to Las Vegas, because Huang didn't have a development on the books in downtown LA.

"Having a development in the pipeline isn't the same as a having a pending application," Walter said at the hearing, citing an interview from one of Huang's associates that the company was planning a huge mixed-use development.

Huizar, 53, 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.

During the search of his home, FBI agents found about $129,000 in cash stashed in Huizar’s closet, which prosecutors say came from Huang and another businessperson seeking favors from Huizar. A number of Huizar's former associates have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the prosecution.

The FBI sought the 2016 search warrant after 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 Chinese billionaire.

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 the search warrant.

This suspicious activity was further support for issuing the search warrant for the emails, which he used to book the Las Vegas and to communicate with his City Council assistant who accompanied him on some of those trips, according to the judge.

Huizar, who pleaded not guilty to all charges in August 2020, was the first sitting elected Los Angeles official to face federal racketeering charges.

According to the indictment, Huang also gave Huizar a $600,000 bribe disguised as a loan in 2014 to help him settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former staffer due to concerns that details of the lawsuit could threaten Huizar’s 2015 reelection campaign.

An attorney for Shen Zhen New World unsuccessfully pleaded at Monday's hearing that the government illegally used privileged attorney-client communications from a Hong Kong lawyer in connection with the "loan" to build its case against Huizar and the company.

Walter also denied a request by Huizar to suppress a 2017 wiretapped call regarding a political action committee that included a campaign a lawyer, as well as Huizar's bid to exclude statements he made to prosecutors in a so-called proffer session in 2019 which would have shielded him from prosecution on condition that he's completely truthful.

"Huizar lied and got caught," Walter said. "He didn't come clean as the government requested."

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