The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday delivered the second half of a devastating one-two punch against corruption in Los Angeles City Hall. Perhaps the only thing more spectacular than allegations of a $500,000 “pay-to-play” bribe is that more announcements are probably coming.
On March 9, federal authorities filed seven criminal counts against former District 12 Councilman Mitch Englander, charging the onetime Valley rep with, among other things, lying to investigators and witness tampering (a May trial date has been set) for a case built around proposed real estate deals. Ten days later, they revealed that Justin Jangwoo Kim, a former political fundraiser as well as a real estate appraiser and consultant, agreed to plead guilty to a federal bribery offense involving a member of the City Council. He faces up to ten years in prison.
This is an amazing time to be either watching or watchdogging City Hall. Here are nine things to note.
Like using a sheet of cellophane for a mask
Federal authorities didn’t reveal the identity of the elected official who allegedly accepted the bribe, referring to the person only as Councilmember A. However, they repeatedly referred to a council rep seeking to have a “relative” elected after the individual is termed out.
It took about 2.4 seconds for observers to note that in September 2018, Richelle Huizar, wife of District 14 Councilman José Huizar, launched a campaign to succeed her husband once he completes his final term this year. That vision was scotched in November 2018, when FBI agents raided the couple’s home and the councilman’s City Hall and Boyle Heights field offices as part of a corruption investigation (one, the public only recently learned, that had been ongoing for well more than a year). Richelle Huizar soon quit the race.
After that things went quiet; as yet, José Huizar has not been arrested or charged with any crime.
As people stay home amid the growing threat of the coronavirus, talk has increasingly turned to occupying one’s time by reading. The Justice Department is doing its part with 44 fascinating pages that seem ripped from a legal thriller.
The 27-page indictment against Englander was jammed with juicy elements including wads of cash allegedly being handed over in casino bathrooms, and the then-councilman meeting a businessman (who had been turned by the FBI) in his car and attempting to drown out a possible listening device by cranking up the car stereo. The new 17-page document listing the charges against Kim details bags full of money, sneaky real estate deals, and underlings desperate to demonstrate their loyalty to an elected official. Then there is the karaoke bar reference.
Say What? Karaoke?
The crux of the Kim case involves a real estate player, known as Developer C, who was trying to get a project built in Councilmember A’s district. An unspecified labor organization was seeking to thwart the project by protesting its environmental impact. This happens from time to time, particularly with big projects. The environmental appeal can serve as a smokescreen, with labor groups ultimately trying to make the development a union job.
In this case, Developer C allegedly sought to avoid an expensive battle—a lobbyist estimated it would cost up to $1.4 million to resolve the appeal and push the project through city channels—by offering to pay a $500,000 bribe to Councilmember A. In turn, the elected official would quash the appeal. Kim was an alleged fixer and middleman in the proceedings, and often coordinated with someone IDed as City Staffer A-1, who worked for the councilmember.
A passage on page five of the charging document details how, on Sept. 1, 2016, Kim, Councilmember A, Staffer A-1, and someone else had dinner and then went to “a Korean karaoke establishment in Los Angeles.” Kim asked the elected official to help with the appeal, and the councilmember agreed. According to the document, Kim “then called Developer C and asked Developer C to join them at the karaoke establishment, which Developer C did.”
I know real estate doings can be shady in L.A., but I’ve never heard of a project being hashed out with a councilmember in a karaoke joint. There are so many things I want know, mostly which songs were chosen. Did the councilmember and the developer team up on “Just the Two of Us”? Did Kim warble “Don’t Stop Believin’”? Did all three just embrace the audacity of the moment and sing the O’Jays 1974 hit “For the Love of Money”?
Bathroom handover, part II
The Englander indictment detailed a businessman giving the councilman $10,000 in cash in a Las Vegas bathroom in June 2017, and then handing over another $5,000 in a Palm Springs bathroom less than two weeks later. The new allegations claim that, in March 2017, Developer C gave Kim a paper bag with $400,000 in cash (!!!), and Kim gave it to Staffer A-1, who held on to it for the councilmember. Then, on Dec. 28, 2017, the staffer and the elected official allegedly “met in Councilmember A’s private bathroom, to discuss various topics, including the cash bribe City Staffer A-1 was holding for Councilmember A.”
I know meetings take place in bathrooms because they general don’t have cameras, but can’t someone pick a less cliché location? Maybe a linen closet? A supply room? A freezer?
The direct route
In what has to count as a bonus for those who keep reading, as part of the bathroom encounter, the charging document then adds, “Councilmember A mentioned that Councilmember A had ‘a lot of expenses’ because Councilmember A’s relative was running to be the councilmember for CD-A. Councilmember A stated: ‘I’m gonna need money.’”
This just goes to prove that a.) some things you should never say out loud, and b.) what happens in private City Hall bathrooms doesn’t stay in private City Hall bathrooms.
Don’t lie to the FBI
If future Angelenos learn anything from the current hubbub, it should be, don’t lie to the FBI and the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney. The Feds don’t like this, and it just makes things worse.
The Englander indictment details numerous instances in which the councilman allegedly fibbed about what he told authorities or tried to get others to lie to investigators. The new document details meetings between Kim and the FBI taking place as early as May 18, 2017, which was 18 months before the raid on Huizar’s office.
Maybe Kim thought he was smarter than investigators, but the document notes that during the interview, Kim tried to minimize his relationship with Staffer A-1. Then, about an hour after meeting with the Feds, Kim called the staffer and said he had just talked to the FBI, and added that investigators had conducted surveillance on the staffer’s hangouts.
Kim had a second meeting with the FBI on July 10, and the following day told the staffer that, yep, he had a second meeting. Perhaps he thought the investigators would never find out, but it is all detailed in the 17 pages.
If you’re gonna cross the line…
When it comes to the current round of public corruption investigations, no one has yet been convicted of anything. Still, you have to marvel at the financial chasm separating the Englander charges from the allegations surrounding Councilmember A.
Englander got busted for allegedly receiving a grand total of $15,000 and enjoying an epic night on the town in Las Vegas complete with the services of a female escort. Councilmember A, meanwhile, allegedly accepted a bribe for cool half million dollars.
I’m not sure if the public should look at Englander askance for selling out for such a low sum or be aghast at the alleged grand financial escapades of Councilmember A. It brings to mind the line that, if you’re going to cross the line by an inch, you might as well cross it by nine miles.
A bad look for City Hall
There is a lot of public distrust over the way business happens in City Hall, particularly when it comes to big real estate projects. The Kim plea adds to the perception that it’s all a rigged money game. Attempts to make the process more transparent have largely failed or been watered down.
Hours after news of Kim’s plea broke, District 4 Councilman David Ryu, who has sought to push development reform, issued a statement slamming the situation.
“City Hall faces a cancer of corruption that cannot be ignored,” said Ryu, who likely faces a November runoff against Nithya Raman in his re-election bid. “My worst fears about the kind of pay-to-play politics I have been working against are being realized, and I feel nothing but disgust.”
His take was echoed by District 3 Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who said on Twitter on Thursday, “If my colleagues are guilty of what they are being accused of, they should resign immediately and be held fully accountable.”
Intentionally or not, Blumenfield used the plural—colleagues.
More to come?
City Hall observers have been eagerly watching the proceedings ever since the 2018 Huizar raids, and speculation has been intense over who may be charged in cases that involve real estate transactions.
Press releases announcing both the Englander and Kim cases noted that the work is “part of an ongoing public corruption investigation,” and when the FBI and the U.S. Attorney use the word “ongoing,” it’s intentional. Further, the Kim press release mentions that he has agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Guys who get busted by the FBI usually only cooperate if they hope to have a sentence reduced, and by the time everything winds up in a tidy press release, a deal concerning how much time will be served, and who the source will roll over on, is usually finished.
It looks like Kim is ready to give up the goods. City Hall, beware.
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