A former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar Wednesday became the fourth person to agree to plead guilty to a felony charge stemming from the “pay-to-play” federal corruption probe of bribery at City Hall.
George Esparza, 33, agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute, and is cooperating in the long-running investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It was not immediately known if Esparza — who was not arrested — has legal representation.
Esparza began cooperating with federal investigators in November 2018, when FBI agents searched Huizar’s offices and home, officials said. Huizar has not been arrested or charged with any crime.
Prosecutors said the scheme involved well-heeled real estate developers and their associates who provided more than $1 million in financial benefits, including cash, to a council member and others to ensure certain real estate projects received favored treatment.
In his plea agreement, Esparza also admitted to lying to special agents with the FBI during interviews in June and July of 2017 by falsely stating, among other things, that he had no knowledge of any city official helping on a project in exchange for money, gifts or campaign contributions.
The court has not scheduled a date for Esparza to enter his guilty plea. Once he formally pleads guilty, he will face up to 20 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
Esparza currently works as chief of staff for Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles.
In his plea agreement, Esparza admitted to participating in a criminal enterprise led by his one-time boss, described as a former chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and named in court records as Council Member A. All indications point to Huizar as the unnamed council member. Esparza worked for Huizar until he left the councilman’s office in January 2018.
Huizar’s home and offices were searched in November 2018 by the FBI as part of the probe, and details in three previous public corruption cases point to — but do not name — him.
According to Esparza’s plea agreement, those involved in the Council Member A scheme planned bribery payments that would provide the council member and other city officials with financial benefits and keep the council member in power.
Esparza admitted he was part of the conspiracy from early 2013 through November 2018, when he began cooperating with federal authorities and after the FBI executed search warrants related to the investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to the plea agreement, Esparza and the council member accepted money and agreed to perform official acts, including: filing motions and voting on projects, including matters before the City Council; taking, or not taking, action on the PLUM Committee to influence the approval process and project costs; negotiating with and exerting pressure on labor unions and other city entities to resolve issues on projects; exerting pressure on developers with projects pending before the city; and taking official action to enhance the professional reputation and marketability of certain business figures in Los Angeles, federal prosecutors said.
The charge against Esparza comes nearly two weeks after federal prosecutors entered into a plea agreement with real estate development consultant George Chiang, who admitted his role in a bribery scheme allegedly involving a council member thought to be Huizar, with the goal of advancing large-scale development projects. Under the agreement, Chiang, like Esparza, agreed to cooperate in the government’s ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors allege the scheme was led by the council member and involved bribery and honest services fraud designed to enrich the participants, to conceal their activities from authorities and the public, and to maintain and advance their political power.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 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, real estate appraiser and 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. The council member in Kim’s case was also not identified, but details in court papers point to Huizar.
In November 2018, federal agents served search warrants at 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. He was not arrested or charged with a crime.
Huizar’s 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.
After the FBI searches, then-Council President Herb Wesson removed Huizar from all of his committee assignments, including his post as chair of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said two weeks ago that Huizar should “step aside immediately” if he is charged in the ongoing federal probe.
Separately, former Councilman Mitch Englander agreed in March to plead guilty to engaging in a scheme to deceive the FBI, related to his cover up 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.
Englander, Kim and Chiang are expected to formally enter guilty pleas in federal court next month before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.
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