A federal jury is expected to begin deliberating Monday in the criminal trial of a Los Angeles real estate developer accused of paying a $500,000 bribe to a city councilman to “grease the wheels” for a 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 JosÃ© Huizar and his associates.
Prosecutors allege that Lee used Huizar associate Justin Kim to transfer bags of cash on behalf of his company, 940 Hill LLC, to the councilman’s aide, George Esparza. Within days of payment, Huizar allegedly smoothed out a bureaucratic tangle that had halted the proposed mixed-use development from moving forward.
At the time, Huizar was head of a powerful city planning committee that reviewed the city’s biggest development projects.
As chairman of the panel, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cassie Palmer told the jury during her June 14 opening statement, “Huizar’s vote mattered, and the defendant knew his vote mattered. They needed JosÃ© Huizar on their side.”
Lee and his 940 Hill company — named for the address of the proposed downtown retail and residential project — face charges of bribery, honest services fraud and obstruction. The fraud and obstruction charges carry a total penalty of up to 20 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney Ariel Neuman offered a different view, telling jurors that his client had been conned by Kim, who allegedly told the developer the cash was needed to pay legitimate fees.
“He made the mistake of trusting the wrong person,” Neuman said of Lee. “He was taken advantage of by a liar and a thief. David Lee did not knowingly or intentionally bribe anyone. He thought he was paying a consulting fee.”
The defense attorney insisted that the government’s case is based on false statements by Kim, who has a “sweetheart deal” with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.
Kim admitted to facilitating the payment from Lee and pleaded guilty to a federal bribery offense. Lee and 940 Hill are also accused of falsifying accounting and tax records to cover up the alleged bribe — the basis for the obstruction charge.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter is scheduled to instruct the jury Monday morning before the case is handed to the Los Angeles federal jury.
The judge broke up the complex six-defendant indictment involving Huizar and his associates 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.