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LA developer thought he was ‘played’ by councilmember for $500,000 bribe

In secretly recorded calls, David Lee is heard saying that they should emphasize that they were played by former Councilmember José Huizar.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A real-estate developer accused of paying a $500,000 bribe to a former Los Angeles city councilmember told an intermediary who was being pressured by the FBI that they were "played" by the politician.

Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles presented transcripts of recorded calls between Dae Yong Lee, aka David Lee, the developer, and Justin Kim, a political consultant, at the second day of Lee's trial. Lee is accused of giving the $500,000 in cash to Kim, who in turn gave it to an aide of former Councilmember José Huizar in exchange for Huizar's help to resolve a labor organization's challenge to Lee's proposed project in downtown LA.

"We were both played by Huizar," Lee told Kim, according to an English translation of their conversation that was played to the jury on Wednesday. "For now, you can’t evade the crime [...] So you would have to blame him."

Lee, 57, is the first person to go on trial in a sprawling federal takedown of a pay-to-play corruption scheme Huizar and his associates allegedly operated. The real-estate investor and developer is charged with bribery, honest services fraud and obstruction of justice through falsifying evidence. He is being tried separately from Huizar to avoid the risk of a jury convicting him based on the wrongdoing of other defendants.

The transcripts of Lee's conversations with Kim were introduced through the testimony of FBI Special Agent Andrew Civetti, who has been working on the investigation of corruption inside LA City Hall since 2013. Civetti testified that Kim, who pleaded guilty, agreed to start cooperating with the government soon after the FBI seized his phone in March 2019 per a search warrant. Kim is expected to testify later during the trial and will be a key witness to support the prosecution's allegation that Lee knowingly sought to bribe Huizar.

Kim agreed to record his conversations with Lee, Civetti testified. They spoke in Korean, and in the English translation, Lee told Kim that they had to emphasize that they were "played" by Huizar.

"Huizar was probably not caught with just one or two things," Lee said according to the transcript. "The way I look at it [...] we’re probably [chuckling] just a drop in the ocean."

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.

According to the government, Huizar and his cohorts sought a $1.2 million bribe from Lee in 2017 to resolve an appeal by a the Coalition of Responsible Equitable Economic Development, or Creed LA, to a city agency’s approval of Lee’s project that sought to replace a one-story commercial building with a 20-story mixed-use development that was to include more than 200 apartments and 14,000 square feet of retail space.

Lee and Huizar didn’t negotiate face-to-face, but used two intermediaries: Huizar’s special assistant George Esparza and Kim, a political consultant and fundraiser who worked with Korean-American business owners in LA that needed help interacting with the local government. Esparza has also pleaded guilty to his role in the corruption scheme and is expected to testify for the government.

After Huizar sought a $1.2-million bribe, Lee countered with a $500,000 cash offer, which Huizar accepted. Shortly after the first $200,000 payment was made, the Creed LA appeal was abruptly dropped, according to the prosecution. Kim passed the cash on to Esparza, who took photographs of it with notes on napkins and stored some of it in a liquor box for Huizar.

Ariel Neuman, Lee’s attorney, said in his opening statement Tuesday that Lee never intended the $500,000 as a bribe but that he thought it was a consulting fee for Kim to help resolve the Creed LA appeal. The only evidence that Lee thought to bribe Huizar comes from Kim, a convicted liar, Neuman told the jurors.

During his cross-examination of Civetti Wednesday, Neuman sought to disassociate Lee fr0m the criminal racketeering enterprise that Huizar and three other people in his circle allegedly ran. Lee's attorney also sought to discredit the thoroughness of the FBI agent's extraction of data from the seized phones, including those of Kim and Esparza, leaving the possibility that potentially exculpatory evidence from message apps was never discovered.

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