LOS ANGELES (CN) — Disgraced Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, suspended from the City Council and facing 35 criminal charges in a wide-ranging criminal probe at LA City Hall, pleaded not guilty Monday in a federal courtroom.
Huizar is accused of accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers to move along construction projects in his council district, which includes portions of downtown LA. On Monday, he appeared before a federal judge in downtown LA via videoconference wearing a white shirt, reading glasses, a black suit jacket and a face mask.
When asked how he pleaded to the charges by U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg, Huizar said from behind his white mask, “Not guilty, your honor.”
This past June, Huizar was arrested on a federal racketeering charge. U.S. Attorney for the Central District Nick Hanna said the ongoing corruption probe, codenamed “Casino Loyale,” began in 2015 when federal investigators saw Huizar exchanging large amounts of casino chips in Las Vegas.
Huizar is the first sitting elected LA official to face federal racketeering charges, according to Hanna.
Prosecutors described a pay-to-play scheme in charging documents where Huizar leveraged his position on the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee as he provided favorable votes to developers seeking to cut down on costs and time to build their projects.
In the charging document against Huizar, prosecutors say “Individual 1” introduced Huizar in 2013 to a “Chairman E,” a Chinese billionaire developer who runs a multinational development firm and owns a hotel in downtown LA.
According to the complaint, the Chinese developer gave Huizar $600,000 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 re-election campaign.
Huizar won re-election and prosecutors say he continued to receive lavish bribes from developers who sought favorable votes from him, including luxurious trips on private jets, stays at casino villas and a trip to Australia.
A cash bribe was delivered to Huizar in liquor boxes, while $800,000 from an unnamed wealthy Chinese developer was used to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit for Huizar with a former aide in his council office according to federal prosecutors.
And last week, a federal grand jury indictment added 34 new charges, detailing claims over 402 overt acts by the councilman and his co-conspirators in a wide-ranging political corruption scheme. Those range from asking unnamed developers to use text messaging apps to ensure that their texts were deleted after being read, to asking one liaison to book him and his mistress a flight to Cuba for an international tryst, according to the grand jury indictment.
In March, former councilman Mitch Englander pleaded guilty to obstructing a federal probe of his actions. Prosecutors say a real estate developer showered Englander with cash, trips and expensive meals.
In a separate plea agreement, Justin Jangwoo Kim — a 53-year-old real estate appraiser and political fundraiser — pleaded guilty to coordinating a bribe for an unnamed councilman to advance a developer’s project.
In May, real estate broker George Chiang pleaded guilty for his involvement in the pay-to-play scheme which prosecutors detailed in an indictment, which included a criminal enterprise perpetrated by an unnamed councilman.
Former Huizar aide George Esparza pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in a scheme to solicit and accept bribes on behalf of Huizar.
The criminal probe against Huizar claims he sought to ensure one of his relatives would be able to campaign for his council seat and while criminal documents only reference that person as “Relative 1,” corroborating details show that the person is Jose Huizar’s wife, Richelle. She has not been charged by federal prosecutors.
On Monday, Huizar relieved his personal attorney Vicki Podberesky with the Andrues Podberesky law firm and is now represented by attorney Carel Ale from the Federal Public Defenders Office.
Huizar is due in court again on Wednesday.