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Money and women motivated LA councilman, former aide testifies

José Huizar's former assistant and confidant said the councilmember for downtown LA routinely sought gifts and other benefits from real-estate developers.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Nothing moved Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar more than money and women, his former aide and confidant testified at the trial of a real-estate developer accused of paying a $500,000 bribe for Huizar's help in resolving a labor union's challenge to his proposed project.

George Esparza, 35, on Friday provided jurors with a detailed roadmap how Huizar, who represented downtown LA from 2005 until his arrest in 2020, routinely used his power to hold up real-estate projects in his district as part of a play-to-pay scheme whereby developers were solicited to provide anything from Katy Perry tickets for Huizar's children, to golf clubs, to campaign contributions to cash payments for his support.

"Let's hit those fuckers up," Huizar would say, according to Esparza. "Let's see if these cows give milk."

Esparza, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, is the government's key cooperating witness for the sprawling bribery scheme that Huizar and his cronies allegedly ran. His explosive testimony at the trial of Dae Yong Lee, aka David Lee, may be a preview of what Huizar faces when he goes on trial himself next year. The former assistant is also expected to testify at the trial of a Chinese real-estate developer accused of bribing Huizar.

Esparza was Huizar's longtime special assistant and testified he was trained by the former councilmember, who had known and admired since childhood, to size up businessmen to see if they were willing to pay in exchange for his help. Huizar also taught him not to ask directly for bribes but to make it very clear what the message was if they didn't play along: "Your project will be stalled," Esparza said.

Lee, 57 is the first defendant to go on trial in the federal takedown of Huizar's alleged bribery scheme. The developer, who owns or owned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commercial and industrial real estate according to evidence presented at trial, was arrested in 2020 and is charged with bribery, honest services fraud and obstruction of justice through falsifying evidence. The fraud and obstruction charges carry a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors claim that Lee used Justin Kim, a political consultant for Korean-American business owners and a fundraiser for Huizar, to seek out Huizar's help when, in August 2016, a labor coalition appealed a city agency's approval of a proposed mixed-use development in the councilmember's downtown district. Kim in turn worked through Esparza to find a solution to the appeal that could hold up the project indefinitely.

Huizar, Esparza and Kim met at a Korean barbecue restaurant where, according to Esparza, Kim requested Huizar's support resolving the appeal by Coalition of Responsible Equitable Economic Development, or Creed LA. The group afterward went to a karaoke bar where, Esparza said, Lee joined them and they were entertained by escort girls.

When the party broke up, Huizar was on a high, according to Esparza, and the two of them discussed in the car how to best leverage this opportunity.

At Huizar's direction, Esparza said he did some research that showed it would save Lee as much as $30 million in construction costs on his project if the Creed LA appeal was dropped. The labor organization appeals approval of construction projects under California's strict environmental laws, but is willing to drop its appeal in exchange for a project-labor agreement that guarantees the work will go to union members.

Based on that information, Huizar, through Esparza, demanded a $1.2 million bribe, with $500,000 going to himself, $500,000 to Kim, and $200,000 to the aide. Lee, through Kim, countered with a $500,000 cash offer, which "thrilled" Huizar, according to Esparza.

"Oh, yeah. He accepted," Esparza told the jury.

Lee, through Kim, made two cash payments of $200,000, of which half went to to Huizar and which Esparza stored in boxes for liquor bottles, taking extensive notes, photos and video of the bundles of $100 bills.

"I wanted to protect myself," Esparza said. "Knowing my boss, I knew was going to be the fall guy in this bribe. I was scared."

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.

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