Councilman Jose Huizar was not present via teleconference at Tuesday’s Los Angeles City Council meeting, the first since he was asked to reduce his activity amid an FBI probe.
Responding to a request by the council president, Huizar said last week he will “limit my participation” in council activities amid a continuing federal corruption probe into alleged bribery of city officials by well-heeled developers.
An aide for Council President Nury Martinez confirmed to City News Service on Friday that a letter was sent to Huizar asking him not to attend council meetings or take any legislative actions.
The request came two days after federal prosecutors announced a plea agreement with a development consultant in connection with the federal probe, which involves an unnamed council member.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the one motion on the agenda co-authored by Huizar — with Councilman Curren Price — was to allocate more than $35 million to finance a 77-unit multifamily housing complex. The council voted to approve the financing.
Huizar, whose offices and home were searched by the FBI 18 months ago, has not been charged with a crime. Although federal prosecutors have not named the council member alleged to be involved in the probe, details in court documents point to Huizar as a central figure in the investigation.
In a statement Friday responding to Martinez’s request, Huizar did not mention the federal investigation.
“I have proudly served on the Los Angeles City Council representing Council District 14 for the last 15 years,” he said. “It has been my honor to work side-by-side with the constituents who elected me to represent them. During this critical time, I have been working with community groups and nonprofits throughout the district to provide PPE and food to those who would otherwise go without. The establishment of critical rent relief programs and support for small businesses in Council District 14 are essential, and I intend to move forward with this work and carry out my duties to protect the safety and economic well being of the residents of Los Angeles during this COVID 19 crisis.
“I do not wish to be a distraction to the important work that is being done and will respect the council president’s wishes that I limit my participation the council while working to meet the needs of my district.”
Huizar did not elaborate on what that limited participation would entail. He was stripped of his council committee assignments following the November 2018 FBI searches.
Last Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced a plea agreement with real estate development consultant George Chiang, who is expected to admit his role in a “pay-to-play” bribery scheme involving an unnamed council member with the goal of advancing large-scale development projects.
Prosecutors allege the scheme was led by a member of the council and involved people engaged in bribery and honest services fraud designed to enrich themselves, to conceal their activities from authorities and the public and to maintain and advance their political power.
According to prosecutors, the public officials involved in the scheme received cash; consulting and retainer fees; political contributions; tickets to concerts, shows and sporting events; and other gifts in exchange for affecting the success of development projects.
In March, political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim agreed to plead guilty to a single count of federal program bribery for facilitating a $500,000 cash payment to an unnamed council member.
Details in court papers in the Kim and Chiang cases both pointed to Huizar, who was the chairman of the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee. His wife, Richelle, had been campaigning to fill her husband’s council seat when his term expires this year, but dropped out of the race following the FBI raids.
Court documents in the Kim and Chiang cases both referenced efforts to have a relative of the implicated council member elected to the seat when the incumbent’s term expired.
During his Friday afternoon coronavirus briefing, Mayor Eric Garcetti said that if Huizar is charged in the FBI probe he should “step aside immediately.”
Garcetti said he supports Martinez’s recommendation to have Huizar limit his activity on the City Council.
Asked about Martinez’s efforts to limit Huizar’s involvement in city government, City Attorney Mike Feuer told reporters Friday morning that because Huizar has not been charged or convicted of a crime, there is little the council can officially do.
“If a council member is convicted or pleads guilty to an offense, then that council member is automatically removed from office,” Feuer said. “If the council member is indicted, then the council may move to suspend that council member.
“If that council member is neither convicted nor indicted, the remaining tool that the City Council has is to impose a censure on that council member under the city charter.”
Councilman Bob Blumenfield said Huizar “should resign,” even though he has not been charged with a crime.
“My blood boils as I learn more details about this horrific tale of corruption,” Blumenfield said. “This is the absolute antithesis of what public service is all about. The public’s trust has been broken, and from what we continue to discover from the Department of Justice and news reports, he should no longer hold a seat on our City Council.”
Councilman David Ryu said he backed the council president’s actions to limit Huizar’s involvement.
“I support Council President Nury Martinez in asking Jose Huizar to refrain from attending council meetings and thank her for her leadership, but Jose should not have to be asked,” Ryu said. “If he knows that he is guilty of these crimes, he should have resigned long ago.”
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell also supports a suspension of Huizar from the council, a representative for his office said.
Separately, former Councilman Mitchell Englander agreed in March to plead guilty to engaging in a scheme to deceive the FBI, related to his coverup of cash payments and other gifts offered by a Los Angeles businessperson.
Prosecutors accused Englander of lying to the FBI during a probe of his alleged acceptance of cash, female escort services, hotel rooms and meals from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Cabazon.