The ongoing federal investigation into City Hall corruption unspooled further Wednesday afternoon, with the U.S. Department of Justice announcing that a former aide to a Los Angeles City Councilmember has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to violate the RICO statute.
George Esparza, 33, was charged with a racketeering offense, and has agreed to cooperate with investigators. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
His plea deal comes two weeks after real estate development consultant George Chiang pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the RICO statute. Esparza is the fourth person to plead guilty to federal charges in the past two months; the other two are Justin Kim, a real estate consultant and fundraiser, and former District 12 Councilman Mitch Englander.
Esparza, who currently works for state Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, was a special assistant to District 14 Councilman José Huizar. As in previous plea deals, Huizar is not mentioned by name, but details align with his biography, including mention of the council member’s role as chair of the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
Huizar has not been arrested or charged with a crime. Council President Nury Martinez recently asked him to refrain from attending council meetings. He agreed to heed her request so as not to be a “distraction.” Other elected officials have called on him to resign.
The 34-page charging document builds on multiple previous alleged incidents involving an elected official identified as Councilmember A. It describes how a Chairman E, the head of a Chinese development firm seeking to erect a 77-story tower, funneled $600,000 to Councilmember A. A DOJ press release says the payment was “to help Councilmember A confidentially resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Councilmember A during a 2014 re-election campaign.”
The charging documents for Esparza and Chiang both mention a Council District A Enterprise with participants engaged in bribery, extortion, mail and wire fraud, and other offenses.
Huizar was the subject of a well-publicized lawsuit at that time filed by a former staffer, Francine Godoy. Huizar acknowledged having an extramarital affair, but denied harassment charges. The suit was ultimately settled, with city representatives saying that no city money was paid.
The charging documents for Esparza and Chiang both mention a Council District A Enterprise with participants engaged in bribery, extortion, mail and wire fraud, and other offenses. The Esparza charging document says he was part of the criminal enterprise from 2013 until November 2018, when he began cooperating with federal authorities. That was the month FBI agents raided Huizar’s home and offices.
Federal authorities describe a “pay-to-play” scheme in Los Angeles real estate circles, with developers directing funds to city employees and elected officials in exchange for helping push large projects through the often Byzantine approvals process. The Chiang plea deal alleged the involvement of a high-ranking official, identified as Individual 1, who became the general manager of the Department of Building and Safety and later the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development under Mayor Eric Garcetti; those details match up to the career arc of Ray Chan, who no longer works for the city.
The Esparza charging document describes how he and Councilmember A worked with Chairman E to move the project forward. Chairman E made payments, including the $600,000 for the lawsuit.
“Ultimately, Chairman E provided over $1 million in bribes to Councilmember A so that Councilmember A would benefit Chairman E’s plans to redevelop his property in CD-A and build the tallest building west of the Mississippi River,” the charging document states.
There were other alleged benefits. Federal authorities described Councilmember A, Esparza, Chairman E, and others making at least 16 visits to Las Vegas casinos from 2014-2018. During these trips, Councilmember A was allegedly given a cumulative $215,000 in gambling chips. Esparza received approximately $32,000 in chips.
In 2016, the same parties traveled to Australia; during that trip, Esparza and Councilmember A were allegedly given unidentified sums in Australian dollars. The documents describe how the two allegedly sought to evade bank reporting requirements. In one text, the city official tells Esparza, “Go to the other place tomorrow and take 9 k. See if they change 9 k without getting your social security number.”
The new document states that, at one point, Esparza showed up at Councilmember A’s home with $200,000 in cash in a liquor box.
The Esparza charging document adds details to incidents described in previous plea agreements. The Kim deal described a $400,000 bribe paid by a different developer and intended for Councilmember A, with the aim of having the councilmember quash a labor group’s appeal of the developer’s project. The new document states that, at one point, Esparza showed up at Councilmember A’s home with $200,000 in cash in a liquor box. It notes that Esparza and Kim “each kept a portion of the remaining $200,000 bribe payment for themselves as kickbacks for facilitating the bribe.”
Another incident that now gains greater detail was an infamous June 2017 trip to Las Vegas with then-Councilman Englander and others. On that trip, a Businessperson A provided gambling chips, and paid for a hefty group dinner and bar bill, for Englander and others. Businessperson A, who was seeking political officials’ help to expand his business, also sent a female escort to Englander’s room at the end of the night (Englander is scheduled to formally enter his guilty plea on June 4).
The new document reveals that Esparza was on the trip. It also says that the businessperson paid for an escort for Esparza.
Additionally, more information is revealed about Councilmember A’s attempts to have Relative A-1 succeed him in office. Huizar is termed out at the end of this year, and his wife, Richelle Huizar, launched a campaign for the District 14 seat in September 2018. She dropped out two months later after the FBI raids (and in March, Kevin de León won the election to succeed Huizar).
The charging document describes Councilmember A, Esparza, a lobbyist, and others allegedly setting up a political action committee that would purportedly help an array of candidates, but was actually created primarily to benefit Relative A-1. The councilmember, Esparza, and others “thereafter pressured developers with projects in CD-A to contribute to PAC A in exchange for favorable treatment of their projects,” the document asserts.
It adds that Esparza and the councilmember “sought to convey to developers and their proxies that those who did not contribute as requested by Councilmember A and defendant Esparza would risk adverse action in the City process taken against their projects.”
According to federal authorities, Esparza was interviewed by FBI agents on June 20, 2017, and lied about knowing of city officials accepting bribes to move projects forward. He was told that a Grand Jury investigation was underway and was instructed not to speak to others about the investigation. However, that same day he reportedly told Councilmember A, Kim, and others that he had been interviewed by the FBI.
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