A former City Hall fundraiser pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal bribery charge for arranging a $500,000 bribe for a council member.
Justin Kim, 53, is the first of four defendants to formally plead guilty in the ongoing “pay-to-play” public corruption probe being conducted by federal authorities.
Kim entered his plea by videoconference to a single count of federal program bribery, which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Sentencing was set for Aug. 17, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
When his plea agreement was filed with the court in March, the Mar Vista man agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
The council member in Kim’s case was not identified, but details in court papers point to Jose Huizar. Last month, former Huizar aide George Esparza agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute and has been cooperating in the years-long probe, prosecutors said.
Also last month, real estate broker and development consultant George Chiang entered into a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to the racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a scheme in which a Chinese real estate company bribed a council member in exchange for help on a major development project. Details in that filing also make clear prosecutors were referring to Huizar.
In March, former City Councilman Mitch Englander agreed to plead guilty to scheming to falsify facts in a probe of his acceptance of cash and other gifts.
In November 2018, federal agents served search warrants at Huizar’s City Hall and field offices, along with his home, as part of the investigation. Huizar was chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee at the time. He was never arrested or charged with a crime.
The bribery scheme involving Kim began in 2016 when a labor group filed an appeal claiming a developer’s proposed project violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The developer contacted Kim in hopes of gaining Huizar’s support, court papers indicate.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the unnamed 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 a staff member to pass along to Huizar, court papers indicate.
Prosecutors allege that the developer later paid the other $100,000 when the appeal was resolved, but Kim kept the money for himself.
Court documents filed in connection with Esparza’s plea agreement contend that his elected-official boss 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.
A date has not yet been set for Esparza to enter his guilty plea. Chiang is expected to plead guilty on June 26, and Englander’s plea will be taken on July 7 in downtown Los Angeles.
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