Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Quick guide to corruption allegations and other scandals gnarling the scene at LA City Hall

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Los Angeles is no stranger to scandal, but the case of Jose Huizar proved to be as complex as they come. A series of other recent allegations and accusations also haven’t done much for confidence in City Hall.

When FBI agents walked into then-Los Angeles City Councilman Huizar’s office and carried out boxes of evidence in 2018, they left behind a deep mistrust of City Hall for many in the community.

Now, more than four years later, Huizar has agreed to a plea deal in which he admits corruption, his benefactor billionaire Wei Huang is on the lam, and more alleged corruption cases are heading to court. And indeed, casinos played a role.

The Huizar corruption case, and the broad federal investigation of city officials, were dubbed by the feds “Operation Loyale,” a play on words taken from the James Bond film, Casino Royale.

Here’s a short guide to what’s happened thus far:

– The upcoming trial of former top-level city official Raymond Chan is set for Feb. 21. Chan led the powerful Department of Building Safety and prosecutors say he was part of Huizar’s corrupt enterprise.

– This week, Jose Huizar agreed to plead guilty to corruption in a plea agreement deal.

– Shen Zhen New World I, a company owned by fugitive developer Wei Huang, was found guilty on Nov. 10, 2022 of federal charges for bribing José Huizar with cash and gambling trips —  in exchange for Huizar’s support to get approval for Huang’s proposed tallest skyscraper on the West Coast. It was never built.

– Last June 27, 2022, a jury found that developer billionaire Dae Yong “David” Lee in 2017 gave a $500,000 bribe to a middleman for then-Councilman Huizar to assure that Huizar would push back against a construction trade union group that opposed a 20-story tower Lee sought to build.

– In 2020, George Esparza, a special aide to Huizar, pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge involving billionaire developer Wei Huang, who sought to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar’s district.

In other corruption cases facing the city:

– City Councilmember Mitchell Englander resigned his post and was later imprisoned in 2021, convicted of  obstructing an FBI investigation into his acceptance of lavish gifts in Las Vegas from a businessman who sought favors from the longtime official. Records show he was released on Feb. 3, 2022.

– City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas in 2021 was charged with bribery after allegedly securing his son a paid position and scholarship at USC in return for providing USC favorable votes on contracts with the county. At the time of the alleged crime, Ridley-Thomas held a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. His prosecution is not directly tied to City Hall. His trial for bribery is expected in 2023. Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the council and his salary was put on hold — but his paycheck has since been reinstated.

–  Another City Hall corruption scandal focused on the L.A. Department of Water and Power and the City Attorney’s Office, following a 2019 FBI raid that targeted DWP and an internal scheme to rig DWP contracts and pay $2.2 million in kickbacks to private attorney Paul O. Paradis. The case involved a vast class action suit against DWP over a 2013 billing debacle in which overcharges were sent to thousands of Angelenos.

L.A. is no stranger to such scandals. Other former high-ranking City Hall officials and advisors, developers, lobbyists and others have pleaded guilty, or been found guilty of bribery, fraud, obstruction and other crimes.

Such prosecutions made history at City Hall, where the most memorable corruption case discussed among city officials dated to 1969 when L.A. City Councilmember Thomas D. Shepard was conviction for corruption after the San Fernando Valley-based city council member went to jail for bribery. The Shepard scandal led to broad reforms to the city’s zoning and land use rules.

Though not linked to such corruption cases, City Hall was humbled by a new high-profile scandal late last year — one that reshaped the City Council and continues to send aftershocks through the city.

In a leaked secret taping of a discussion between  former council president Nury Martinez,  Councilman Kevin de Leon, fonmer Councilman Gil Cedillo, and powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, used disturbing racist slurs to criticize City Councilman Mike Bonin’s toddler son, who is Black.

Amid waves of outrage, Martinez resigned from her powerful council president position, as well as her District 6 seat on the council. Herrera also resigned his post.

Officials, activists and residents alike demanded the resignations of Cedillo and de Leon. Cedillo left office after earlier losing his bid for re-election. De Leon is still in office after weeks of protests calling for his departure.

  • FILE – Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar is seen...

    FILE – Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar is seen at an event at Los Angeles City Hall, Aug. 24, 2016. A jury has convicted Dae Yong Lee, a real estate developer, of bribery for giving $500,000 in cash to Huizar, a former Los Angeles city councilman and his special assistant in exchange for favors. (Walt Mancini, Pasadena Star-News))

  • Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted by a...

    Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly taking part in a bribery and fraud scheme during his previous post as an L.A. County Supervisor. (Photo by Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News)

  • David H. Wright, former executive at L.A. Department of Water...

    David H. Wright, former executive at L.A. Department of Water and Power, pleaded guilty after accepting bribes including a $1 million promised job from Aventador Utility Solutions founder Paul O. Paradis, who took a plea deal in the corruption case. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Thomas Peters headed L.A. City Attorney civil litigation, and pleaded...

    Thomas Peters headed L.A. City Attorney civil litigation, and pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an extorter dubbed “Person A” who threatened to reveal collusion between the city attorney’s office and private attorneys suing the city. (Staff photo by Josh Cain)

  • Federal prosecutors say Raymond Chan was part of a criminal...

    Federal prosecutors say Raymond Chan was part of a criminal pay-to-play enterprise led by then-L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar in which city officials demanded bribes from developers seeking city favors. His trial is set for early 2023. (Photo from Building and Safety Department)

  • About $4 million in cash found in September 2014 at...

    About $4 million in cash found in September 2014 at the downtown LA office of developer Dae Yong Lee who was found guilty in June 2022 of bribing former L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar, giving Huizar $500,000 in “bags of cash.” (Photo by Department of Justice)

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