LOS ANGELES (CN) - Several major construction projects slated for downtown Los Angeles are under scrutiny as it was revealed over the weekend an FBI corruption probe focused on two city council members and former city hall employees who are being investigated for bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering.
Two Los Angeles City Councilmen are named in federal search warrants issued in 2017 and 2018 over major development projects that they approved.
In the wake of the FBI probe, one watchdog group is asking for a federal grand jury to open a wide-ranging investigation into the city’s land-development approval process.
Federal investigators served a search warrant to Yahoo in February 2017 to search Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar’s personal email. Last July, Google was served a warrant to allow investigators to examine the email of Ray Chan, a former head of the Department of Building and Safety under Mayor Eric Garcetti.
At a Monday press conference on a city-wide teacher’s strike, Garcetti said he has a zero tolerance for any malfeasance but does not know the scope of the FBI’s investigation.
“I don’t look at these kind of things in political terms. I look at them in terms of what’s right,” Garcetti said. “I’m not responsible 100 percent of everybody’s actions in this building and elected officials, but I do take my responsibility seriously and I do expect every city employee to participate fully and cooperate fully with the FBI.”
According to a July 2018 search warrant, federal investigators sought financial records on Huizar, his mother, brother and records on “development projects in and around Los Angeles that relate to foreign investors” from Chan’s email account.
Those “foreign investors” are developers who seek to build large-scale projects in downtown Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, investigators sought records related to Salesian High School where Huizar’s wife, Richelle, worked as a fundraiser. The LA Times reports that developers made large contributions to the Catholic school where Richelle worked as they sought favorable votes from Huizar, who sat on the Planning and Land Use Committee which oversees housing development and other large-scale projects in the city.
Investigators sought records pertaining to bribery, kickbacks concerning federal funds, deprivation of honest services, extortion, money laundering and structuring a financial transaction to evade a reporting obligation or suspicion from financial institutions.
The July 2018 search warrant referenced Huizar and two of his former staffers; Joel Jacinto, a Garcetti appointee who serves on the city’s Board of Public Works; Chan and current Councilman Curren Price, along with another councilman’s chief of staff.
Over the weekend, George Washington University professor Seamus Hughes shared portions of the search warrants on Twitter.
Hughes, Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at Georgetown University, shared a screenshot of a search warrant from February 2017 that showed investigators reviewed about 1,400 records from Huizar’s personal email account and noted that 151 were pertinent to their investigation.
Neither warrant said if any evidence of criminal activity was recovered. There have been no arrests or charges in connection from the investigation.
In a statement, watchdog group Coalition to Preserve LA executive director Jill Stewart said projects approved in city hall “ride through approvals on a river of cash donations, and wining and dining of officials.”
The group said the FBI investigation casts doubt on several projects proposed or approved by Huizar, including plans to convert the former site of the Parker Center police station into high-end luxury offices for city workers.
Last November, agents from the FBI carried out boxes from Huizar’s office at city hall and searched his home in Boyle Heights.
The FBI did not immediately answer an email for comment on Monday. In November, FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller said no arrests were planned.
Part of Huizar’s district and Price’s district include downtown Los Angeles, which has experienced a development boom in recent years. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that Price said he has not been contacted by the FBI.
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