A former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar Wednesday became the fourth person to agree to plead guilty in connection with a scheme prosecutors describe as a “pay-to-play” bribery plot to gain favorable treatment of developers 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.
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, and he has not been formally identified in court documents, but details released by prosecutors in connection with Esparza’s plea solidify Huizar as a central figure in the federal probe.
Court documents filed Wednesday indicate Esparza and his unnamed elected boss accepted an array of gifts from the head of a Chinese development firm looking to build a 77-tower skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. The court papers allege the developer paid “over $1 million in bribes” to the council member in exchange for his support of the development project.
Prosecutors allege in the court papers that the developer took Esparza and the council member on more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas between 2014 and 2017 and provided them with “flights on private jets, hotel rooms, spa services, meals, alcohol, prostitution/escort services and casino gambling chips.” The court papers allege the council member received a total of more than $200,000 in casino chips during the trips.
Prosecutors also contend the developer bankrolled a January 2016 trip to Australia with Esparza and the council member. The court papers cite text messages between Esparza and the council member following the Australia and Las Vegas trips, detailing efforts to cover up the payments and expenses they received from the developer.
Prosecutors also contend in the papers the developer — with Esparza’s knowledge — secured $600,000 in collateral so the council member could obtain a $570,000 bank loan to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the elected official in 2013 by a former employee. Huizar was sued in 2013 for alleged sexual harassment by former aide Francine Godoy. The married Huizar later claimed the two had a consensual affair. The lawsuit was settled in 2014, but the terms were never disclosed.
In his plea agreement, Esparza admitted 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. Esparza worked for Huizar, former chair of the PLUM committee, 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.
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.
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. Current council President Nury Martinez earlier this month asked Huizar not to attend any more council meetings. Huizar has so far abided, saying he would scale back his legislative work to avoid being a distraction.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday the latest development in the federal probe “sickens” him.
“Public service is an honor, and anybody who takes public service and uses that to enrich themselves soils this place, the people’s house, where we are to represent all Angelenos,” Garcetti said. “So I hope that the law will be brought fully to bear on those that we read about here today.”
Garcetti said anyone who has information about the probe should speak up and anyone involved should be “prepared to pay the price.”
“I want to congratulate the U.S. attorney and the FBI for their good work to make sure that we get rid of folks who would take the public service and the public trust, and would take it for their own enrichment, and in doing so pollute this holy temple of democracy and this City Hall,” Garcetti said.
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.