Saturday, July 13, 2024

The stunning fall of Jose Huizar and how it exposed ‘rampant corruption’ at L.A. City Hall

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Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar’s agreement to plead guilty announced Thursday marks a stunning fall for a politician who once had aspirations of higher office but ultimately became a symbol of City Hall corruption.

Huizar rose from working-class roots in Boyle Heights and for years was at the center of downtown L.A.’s building boom. But the corruption alleged by prosecutors in 2020 damaged not just the reputation of Huizar but also City Hall itself.

“This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” then-U.S. Atty. Nick Hanna said when announcing charges against Huizar three years ago.

Here is a look at Huizar and the case against him from the pages of The Times:

Who is Jose Huizar?

Huizar, 54, came to the United States as a boy from Zacatecas, Mexico, grew up in Boyle Heights and made his way through a series of top-tier colleges — UC Berkeley, then Princeton University and finally UCLA School of Law.

Huizar spoke frequently of his humble origins. He has discussed his mother’s job at a meatpacking firm and how his father, after working all week, would head to the strawberry fields in Orange County to pick fruit.

In a 2013 video interview conducted by the Immigrant Archive Project, Huizar said he made sure to remember what it meant to lack the money to pay for basic necessities.

“I try not to forget how [easy] it was to join gangs when I was growing up, how easy it was to get into a life of crime, how easy it would have been to get involved in things that would have a negative long-lasting effect on our lives,” he said in the interview.

Huizar was elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 2001. Four years later, he won a City Council seat with major backing from then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

He became something of a power player as downtown enjoyed a development boom that altered the skyline with new high-rises. Before the scandal broke, he was considered a possible candidate for higher office, such as city attorney.

What were the allegations against Huizar?

In 2020, Huizar faced a racketeering charge arising from allegations he ran a sprawling pay-to-play scheme in which real estate developers were shaken down for cash bribes and campaign donations in exchange for Huizar’s help getting high-rise development projects through the city’s arduous approval process.

Along the way, the councilman and his associates allegedly enjoyed free plane travel, lavish meals, casino chips and other perks offered up by developers, prosecutors said. In all, Huizar improperly received about $1.5 million in financial benefits, according to federal filings.

Prosecutors portrayed Huizar as the head of the enterprise. He planned for his wife to succeed him on the council — a strategy that would allow his pay-to-play scheme to continue for up to a dozen more years, prosecutors alleged.

What is he pleading guilty to?

In the agreement, Huizar admitted that he was a leader of a criminal enterprise involving lobbyists, consultants and other city officials who sought to “personally enrich themselves and their families and associates through a pay-to-play scheme within the city.”

As part of that scheme, public officials “extracted financial benefits from developers and their promises” in exchange for official government acts, the agreement said.

Huizar admitted that he and others took cash, consulting fees, gambling chips at casinos, loans, political contributions, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, spa visits, concert tickets and prostitution services. He has also agreed to plead guilty to tax evasion.

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