LOS ANGELES (CN) – The liquor box delivered to a Los Angeles City Council member’s home by a city employee in March 2017 was not filled with spirits, but instead a $200,000 bribe from a developer who wanted a real estate project to move forward.
Justin Jangwoo Kim, a 53-year-old real estate appraiser and political fundraiser, pleaded guilty to coordinating that bribe for a developer’s project in the unnamed councilmember’s district, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thursday.
In communications, Kim referred to the councilmember as “boss” but took nearly half of a $500,000 payout that was meant to be paid from the developer to the councilmember, according to federal prosecutors.
A city staffer is also mentioned in the plea agreement, along with a developer and a labor union official, but Kim is the only one named.
The charging document says Councilmember A was also concerned with loyalty. Prosecutors say Councilmember A wanted one of his relatives to succeed them when his term ran out on the City Council – and expected Kim to be a major donor when the relative ran for office.
Councilmember A agreed to exert his influence as a member of the Planning and Land Use Committee to help a developer overcome an appeal filed by a labor group in 2016, federal prosecutors say.
Between August 2016 and July 2017, Kim facilitated the bribes from the developer to Councilmember A. By February and March 2017, Kim handed a city employee, referred to as City Staffer A-1 and who worked for Councilmember A, a paper bag that contained $400,000.
The money was delivered to the councilman’s home in a liquor box by the city staffer, but according to federal prosecutors Councilmember A asked the staffer to hold onto the money.
On multiple phone calls, Kim and City Staffer A-1 went back and forth expressing how loyal they were to Councilmember A and the relative who they wanted to succeed in taking over as a councilmember.
In an April 15, 2017, telephone call Kim told the city staffer, “But more importantly, [City Staffer A-1], your interests, my interests, that’s what I told everyone, alright? We want to make sure [Councilmember A’s relative] gets elected.”
Over the next few weeks, Kim reaffirmed his loyalty to Councilmember A and the city staffer replied, “Well, we got to, uh, protect the ship, right, from sinking itself.”
In another call, Kim said, “[W]e’re the most loyal guys” and City Staffer A-1 replied, “I think it’s important to tell [Councilmember A], like, ‘Look boss, we’re your loyal people.’…[W]e’ve showed our loyalty, you’ve showed your loyalty.”
During an interview with FBI agents in May 2017, Kim downplayed his close relationship with City Staffer A-1 and how often the two spoke. An agent told Kim there was an ongoing grand jury investigation into the corruption probe at City Hall and asked him not to discuss the interview. Kim agreed, but one hour later called City Staffer A-1 and said the FBI “know[s] exactly who you are,” and they had surveillance at City Staffer A-1’s local hangouts.
Federal prosecutors say Kim warned, “Don’t take our boss [Councilmember A] over there.”
After a second interview with FBI agents Kim called City Staffer A-1 again and warned “you might not want to talk on the phone” and federal prosecutors say Kim disclosed that FBI agents showed him photographs of the two of them seen together.
In July 2017, Kim received the final $100,000 portion of the bribe from the developer but kept the money for himself, say federal prosecutors.
By December 2017, Councilmember A wanted his share of the bribe money that City Staffer A-1 was holding. According to the charging documents, Councilmember A said they had “expenses” because their relative was running for office.
“That is mine, right? That is mine,” asked the councilmember according to federal prosecutors. City Staffer A-1 agreed and the two decided they would exchange the money in April 2018, to allow a cooling-off period after City Staffer A-1’s interviews with the FBI during the summer, but prosecutors say the exchange date was pushed to October 2018.
In multiple text messages to City Staffer A-1 leading to October, Councilmember A wrote he wanted to meet saying, “So we gonna meet up like u said we would after October?”
By Oct. 5, 2018, Councilmember A met Kim at a Pasadena hotel and asked Kim to turn off his cellphone during their conversation. Councilmember A said he did not get his share of the bribe and held up two fingers, referring to the $200,000 he was owed for helping the developer’s project, according to federal prosecutors.
Later in the month, Councilmember A messaged City Staffer A-1 and wrote, “I’ve been trying to reach u. When are we going to meet and square up?”
By Oct. 22, 2018, the two had not met and Councilmember A wrote, “Sounds like u don’t ever want to meet and face up to your commitment to meet on Oct. 1 and u are using other pretests [sic] as to why u don’t want to meet. You are using excuses as for the real reason u don’t want to meet and u know it. U told me October. Now What? Each time comes up and u don’t want to meet at all? U want it all and that’s the real reason why you don’t want to meet and are using all kind of excuses. One more time, when are we going to meet?”
In March 2019, federal agents legally secured Kim’s cellphone. Later Kim met with the developer who paid the bribe to Councilmember A to discuss the FBI investigation. Kim explained he told his attorney about the bribe and the developer became upset, because now their two stories would not match.
Thursday’s plea agreement is the latest in an ongoing corruption probe at LA City Hall, less than a month after ex-councilman Mitch Englander was arrested on charges of obstructing federal agents and lying to agents about a payout he allegedly received..
A seven-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury Jan. 16 accuses Englander of interfering with an anti-corruption investigation into pay-to-play schemes involving LA public officials.
An email to Kim’s attorney was not immediately answered by press time.
In November 2018, FBI agents raided the homes and City Hall office of Councilman Jose Huizar as part of its corruption probe, but he has not been charged.
Federal investigators served a search warrant to Yahoo in February 2017 to search Huizar’s personal email. In July 2018, Google was served a warrant to allow investigators to examine the email of Ray Chan, a former head of the Department of Building and Safety under Mayor Eric Garcetti.
According to a July 2018 search warrant, federal investigators sought financial records on Huizar, his mother, brother and records on “development projects in and around Los Angeles that relate to foreign investors” from Chan’s email account.
Those “foreign investors” are developers seeking to build large-scale projects in downtown Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, investigators sought records related to Salesian High School where Huizar’s wife Richelle worked as a fundraiser. According to media reports, developers made large contributions to the Catholic school where Richelle worked as they sought favorable votes from Huizar, who sat on the Planning and Land Use Committee which oversees housing development and other large-scale projects in the city.
The July 2018 search warrant referred to Huizar and two of his former staffers; Joel Jacinto, a Garcetti appointee who serves on the city’s Board of Public Works; Chan; and current Councilman Curren Price, along with another councilman’s chief of staff.