Ex-City Councilman Nets Prison Time in Pay-to-Play Probe at LA City Hall

A  federal judge sentenced Mitch Englander, the former Los Angeles City Council member who accepted lavish gifts from a businessman, to 14 months in prison and ordered him to pay a $15,000 fine.

Los Angeles City Hall. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The trouble for Mitch Englander, former Los Angeles City Councilman who represented the San Fernando Valley, began in a Las Vegas casino bathroom when a businessman handed him an envelope with $10,000 in cash.

On Monday, Englander became the first player in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe at LA City Hall to receive prison time for his role in a pay-to-play scheme while in office. He received and tried to cover up the lavish trips, expensive meals, escort services and other gifts given to him by the businessman from August 2017 until December 2018, according to federal prosecutors. The gifts were all made to ensure that Englander could use his city connections to introduce the unnamed businessman to developers in the city.

When FBI agents began to interview witnesses, Englander contacted the businessman at least three times so they could get their stories straight, which prosecutors say amounted to lying to federal agents.

In a courtroom just down the street from City Hall on Monday, U.S. District Judge John Walter denied Englander’s request for probation and sentenced him to a 14-month prison term, followed by 3 years of probation. Englander must also pay a $15,000 fine.

Englander is the first in a long line of city officials and businessmen who have been charged in the federal investigation dubbed “Casino Loyale.” The probe has also ensnared Councilman Jose Huizar, who faces trial on racketeering charges this year.

The probe’s humble beginning started in 2015, when Huizar was spotted exchanging large amounts of casino chips in a Las Vegas casino.

In time, investigators uncovered the pay-to-play exchange between city officials who could help move along city projects or provide connections to lucrative city contracts. 

On numerous trips, Englander received gifts while in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. He received an envelope with $10,000, a hotel room, $1,000 in casino chips, $34,000 in bottle service at a nightclub and a $2,481 group dinner, according to prosecutors. The businessman also paid for two female escorts and instructed one to go with Englander to his room.

On another occasion, Englander received an envelope with $5,000. Prosecutors say Englander arranged for the businessman to meet with a developer who was also Englander’s friend.

After he learned of the federal corruption probe, Englander backdated a check to make it seem like he intended to reimburse all the gifts he received from the businessman and then asked the businessman to lie to federal investigators according to the charging documents.

That included an awkward car ride where Englander picked up the businessman in his car and instructed him on how to lie to investigators. Englander blasted his car radio to block any listening devices that could pick up their conversation, according to prosecutors.

Englander left office in 2018 with nearly two years left of his term and pleaded guilty to obstruction charges last July. On the day he resigned from office, investigators interviewed him and he denied receiving any valuable gifts from the businessman.

This past July, Englander’s former chief of staff John Lee — now a City Council member — acknowledged going with Englander on the Las Vegas and Palm Springs trips but denied seeing anything illegal.

So far, investigators have charged nine people and two businesses in the investigation. Huizar is named as the lead defendant, charged with taking $1.5 million in bribes and serving as the leader of the criminal scheme.

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