A federal corruption probe into relationships between developers and Los Angeles elected officials made a major move forward Thursday, with prosecutors saying a political fundraiser will plead guilty to facilitating a $500,000 bribe of an unnamed City Council member.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Justin Jangwoo Kim, 53, will plead guilty to a single count of federal program bribery, and will cooperate in the continuing Los Angeles City Hall corruption probe.
Federal prosecutors said Kim facilitated a $500,000 cash payment to the unnamed council member in late 2016 and early 2017 in a developer’s effort to resolve a labor group’s environmental challenge to a major real estate project. Prosecutors said Kim also supported an effort by a member of the council member’s staff to be elected to the seat once the council member’s term expired.
Neither the council member, staffer or developer were named in the court documents. The council member is referred to only as a member of the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
In November 2018, federal agents served search warrants at Councilman Jose Huizar’s City Hall and field offices, along with his home, as part of the corruption probe. Huizar was chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee at the time. Huizar was never arrested or charged with a crime.
His wife, Richelle, had been campaigning to fill her husband’s council seat when his term expires this year, but she dropped out of the race following the FBI raids.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the bribery scheme involving Kim began in 2016 when a labor group filed an appeal claiming the developer’s proposed project violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The developer allegedly contacted Kim in hopes of gaining the unnamed council member’s support.
Kim, the developer and council member met on Sept. 1, 2016, at a Korean karaoke bar, and the council member agreed to help the developer resolve the issue, prosecutors said. But in a follow-up meeting the next day, the council member’s staffer told Kim the developer would have to pay for the council member’s assistance, prosecutors said.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the council member and developer negotiated a $500,000 payment, and in early 2017, the developer gave Kim $400,000 in cash inside a paper bag to deliver to the council member. Kim kept some cash for himself for acting as a go-between, then delivered the money to the council staff member to pass along to the council member, prosecutors said.
The developer later paid the other $100,000 when the appeal was resolved, but Kim kept the money for himself, prosecutors said.
In his plea agreement, Kim also admits lying to FBI agents taking part in the corruption probe.
Kim is expected to appear in federal court in downtown Los Angeles on March 31, although it was unclear when he will actually enter the plea. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Councilman David Ryu, who has labeled himself a “reformer” of city ethics, reacted to news of Kim’s plea.
“Enough is enough. As we work together to battle a coronavirus pandemic, City Hall faces a cancer of corruption that cannot be ignored,” Ryu said. “My worst fears about the kind of pay-to-play politics I have been working against are being realized, and I feel nothing but disgust. This is what keeps Los Angeles from being the city we need it to be right now. We must take corruption seriously, and take action to root it out.”
Ryu is likely to face Nithya Raman in a runoff election for his Fourth District council seat in November; ballots are still being tallied from the primary election.
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