LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar and billionaire Chinese real estate developer Wei Huang bonded over gambling and prostitutes during numerous visits to Las Vegas, Huizar's former aide testified at the bribery trial of Huang's U.S. hotel business.
George Esparza, Huizar's former special assistant, continued his testimony Wednesday at the trial in which Shen Zhen New World I LLC is accused of providing bribes to the LA politician in exchange for his support for a planned 77-story hotel and condominium project in his downtown district. Huang, a resident of Shenzhen, China, was also indicted by the Justice Department but hasn't come to the U.S. to face charges. Huizar is scheduled to go on trial early next year.
On the gambling trips, Huang, whom Esparza frequently referred to as "the chairman," would always give Huizar $10,000 in chips to start with, and if the chairman was winning, he'd hand out more. But if he was losing, Huang didn't share additional chips with his guests, and Huizar at times inquired ahead of time if Huang was winning on a trip before committing himself to joining him in Las Vegas, Esparza said.
"He wanted more than $10,000," Esparza told the jury. "He wouldn't go to Las Vegas if the chairman was losing."
Richard Steingard, one of the attorneys for Shen Zhen New World, said in his opening statement last week that the company doesn't deny that Huang provided Huizar with luxury accommodations, expensive meals and private jets on the Las Vegas trips or that he gave the councilman gambling chips. But Steingard alleges that the casinos comped Huang with the suites, jets and meals because he was a high-roller who lost millions of dollars gambling. Huang simply shared these benefits with the rest of his entourage.
The lawyer, during his cross-examination of Esparza Wednesday, showed the jury pictures in which Huizar, Huang and other members of Huang's group were seated at a big table laden with food at one the luxury suites at Caesar's Palace, all of which was provided by the casino, Steingard said.
It was Huang's standard practice, Steingard continued, to stake the table by providing all his guests, not just Huizar, with chips to gamble with.
Esparza testified, however, that Huizar would get more chips than any of the other guests and that he was given other preferential treatment, such as being served first at dinner by Huang and getting toasted first when they raised glasses. 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.
The developer also provided the councilman with prostitutes from their first trip together in 2013, Esparza said. During the first trip, Huang's other guests also were treated to prostitutes, but, Esparza said, long after these other guests had reassembled in the lobby after their frolic, Huizar hadn't come down yet.
When the group went up to check on Huizar, the prostitute he had been with came hurrying out of the room, shouting "water, water, water," presumably as an indication that Huizar had worn her out, Esparza said, after which the councilman emerged triumphantly in his robe. After that, "water, water, water" became an inside joke and code for prostitutes between Huang and Huizar, according to Esparza.
Esparza is the government's star witness in three separate trials stemming from the Justice Department's investigation of the wide-ranging corruption scandal, wherein Huizar allegedly abused his position as councilman for downtown LA and as chairman of the city's influential Planning and Land Use Management Committee to solicit payoffs from developers that sought approval for projects in his district.
Earlier this year, a Korean-American real estate investor and developer was convicted, partially based on Esparza's testimony, of paying a $500,000 bribe to get Huizar's help resolving a union challenge to a proposed project downtown.
A second witness testifying Wednesday was a former Shen Zhen New World employee who worked as an accountant in the company's other hotel in the LA area, the Sheraton Universal.
Yan Yan told the jurors that in September 2014 she was instructed by a Shen Zhen New World executive to help an attorney with a project. She said the lawyer instructed her to sign a document and provide her ID information.
That document turned out to be a resolution by a Hong Kong-based company, Grace Luck Holding Ltd., authorizing her to sign and handle funds to be used as collateral for a loan Huizar needed to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.
"I didn't read it, I just signed," Yan told the jury, adding that she knew nothing about the Hong Kong company or about loan transactions. "I didn't pay attention."
According to the prosecution, Huang used the Hong Kong company as a conduit to transfer $600,000 to East West Bank in California, so that there wouldn't be a connection to him. Yan's signature also appeared on other documents used for the transaction, including a promissory note signed by Huizar as well, which she testified she didn't recall signing.Follow @edpettersson
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