Mayor Eric Garcetti and Council President Nury Martinez called Thursday for the resignation of Councilman Jose Huizar, one day after an FBI corruption probe ensnared one of Huizar’s former aides and pointed to the councilman as a prime target of the investigation.
Huizar, whose home and offices were searched by the FBI in November 2018, has not been charged with a crime. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
In a statement issued Thursday, Garcetti said, “I’m sickened by the bribery and corruption described in federal indictments, and I support Council President Nury Martinez’s call for Jose Huizar to step down from Los Angeles City Council. All city employees must uphold the highest moral and ethical standards, and elected officials have a special responsibility to the people who entrust them with power. Mr. Huizar has lost that trust, and I hope and expect that any wrongdoing will be exposed and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
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 to the council during the coronavirus pandemic.
Responding to the request by the council president, Huizar said last week he will “limit my participation” in council activities amid the federal probe, which is focused on alleged bribery of city officials by well-heeled developers.
Martinez on Thursday stepped up her criticism of Huizar, calling for him to resign from the council altogether.
“The increasing level of greed, corruption and deception laid out in federal documents has not only disgusted me personally, it clearly and understandably has shaken our fellow Angelenos’ faith in their local government,” Martinez said. “As I stated previously, I demanded that Council member Huizar not attend all City Council and committee meetings and refrain from taking votes or participating in legislative actions until we have legal clarity in his case.
“However, yesterday’s (Wednesday’s) indictment directly implicates Council member Huizar and his illegal, offensive and absolute abuse-of-power dealings with a Council District 14 staffer. He should resign immediately,” Martinez said.
Federal prosecutors announced Wednesday that former Huizar aide George Esparza, 33, had agreed to plead guilty to a corruption charge and will cooperate with investigators in the continuing probe.
Court documents filed in connection Esparza’s plea agreement contend that his elected-official boss, whose name was not included in the court papers, received more than $1 million in payments and financial benefits from a Chinese developer looking to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar’s district.
Prosecutors allege in the court papers that the developer took Esparza and the unnamed 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 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 only 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.
The charge against Esparza came 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.
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 in November 2018.
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.
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.