Jury selection began Tuesday morning in the trial of a Los Angeles real estate developer accused of bribing a former city councilman in exchange for help settling a labor dispute that threatened to stall the builder’s proposed downtown condominium project.
Dae Yong Lee, also known as David Lee, is the first defendant to go on trial in the City Hall corruption scandal surrounding former Councilman José Huizar and his associates.
Lee faces federal charges of paying Huizar $500,000 in cash in 2017 in exchange for Huizar’s help to resolve problems with the labor union. Lee’s company, 940 Hill LLC — named for the address of the proposed retail and residential project — is a secondary defendant in the case and is named in the same charges as Lee: bribery, honest services fraud and obstruction.
Federal prosecutors allege the developer provided bags of money to Justin Kim, a Huizar fundraiser, to deliver to the then-councilman and his former aide George Esparza. Kim admitted to facilitating the bribe from Lee and pleaded guilty to a federal bribery offense. Lee and 940 Hill are accused of falsifying accounting and tax records to cover up the alleged bribe.
Both Kim and Esparza, who also pleaded guilty to a federal charge, are expected to testify for the prosecution during the trial in Los Angeles federal court.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter broke up the complex six-defendant indictment into three separate criminal trials after finding that the size of the case against Huizar alone would likely overshadow evidence against his co-defendants.
Huizar and former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, who was general manager of the Department of Building and Safety before becoming the city’s deputy mayor of economic development, are scheduled to be tried on racketeering conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and other charges in February.
Huizar, the central figure in a six-year probe of suspected corruption in City Hall politics, is accused of receiving $1.5 million in cash and benefits as part of a pay-to-play scheme in which developers were shaken down for cash and campaign donations in exchange for help getting downtown real estate projects through the city’s approval process.
Huizar’s lawyers deny the allegations against their client, claiming the former councilman was merely “an evangelist for robust development” in downtown and Boyle Heights, which he represented from 2005 to 2020.
An October trial date is scheduled for Shen Zhen New World, a company owned by a fugitive Chinese billionaire developer who is also a defendant. The company, which acquired the L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown in 2011, planned to redevelop it into a 77-story tower, allegedly in a quid pro quo arrangement with Huizar. The developer, Wei Huang, is believed to be in China and has never appeared for a court date in the case.