On the morning of November 7, 2018, a scene straight out of a network police procedural unfolded in City Hall: a squadron of FBI agents in dark blue jackets with yellow lettering entered the fourth-floor office suite of 14th District councilman José Huizar. They departed a few hours later carrying cardboard boxes, and offered few details as to what they were investigating.
A total of seven search warrants were served that day, and there were also raids of Huizar’s Boyle Heights field office and his home. The latter operation included the presence of a sniffer dog, reportedly named Ginger, trained to be adept at seeking out hard drives and other electronic equipment.
Despite the TV-ready scenario, the proceedings contained far more drama than fits in any 60-minute episode. The reverberations have continued, and today marks the one-year anniversary of the raids.
The events of that day and in the year that followed has been both monumental and unremarkable. City Hall was rocked, reputations were scarred, and a public that is often leery about local government was given a forest’s worth of logs to drop onto a bonfire of skepticism.
At the same time, all that smoke has yielded no fire. Although he has been the subject of a torrent of news stories, Huizar has not been arrested or charged with a crime, and neither has anyone else.
When asked for a comment about what’s transpired in the year since the FBI action, Huizar responded in an email, “My office continues to be as committed to the constituents of Council District 14 as it was on the first day of my first term. Nothing has changed. As a team, we are dedicated to improving the lives and neighborhoods that we serve. I believe our record speaks for itself.”
The FBI never comments publicly on its ongoing investigations, so the status and even the ultimate focus of what the bureau is pursuing is no more than a guessing game for the general public and City Hall observers. Still, there’s been plenty of fallout.
Loss of Power
Before the raids, Huizar was a major power player in L.A. The chair of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee and a confidante of Council President Herb Wesson—Wesson once famously referred to Huizar as “like my brother, my best friend on the council”—Huizar has been in office since 2005, and represents a district that includes Boyle Heights, downtown Los Angeles, and neighborhoods in Northeast L.A. He is undefeated in four council elections, including a 2015 shellacking of Eastside political legend Gloria Molina.
Eight days after the raids, Wesson took the unprecedented step of stripping Huizar of his council committee assignments, and in city hall, top committee posts are conduits to serious influence and fundraising. The loss of the PLUM position meant that deep-pocketed developers had little need to stay in the councilman’s good graces.
A Scorched Campaign
In September 2018, Richelle Huizar had launched a campaign to succeed her husband in office (he’ll be termed out in 2020). She was the instant overwhelming favorite, and her candidacy set in motion the possibility of the 14th District seat being in the hands of House Huizar for 27 years.
Yet mere weeks after the raid, she pulled the plug. The FBI investigation may not have been the only factor, as during the summer of 2018 two former Huizar staffers filed lawsuits against the councilman, charging harassment and retaliation, and alleging that he had an affair with a third, unnamed staffer (this was years after another affair, one that Huizar acknowledged, with a former staff member named Francine Godoy).
Richelle Huizar never publicly discussed ending her campaign, but a few weeks after withdrawing from the race, the L.A. Times reported that while she worked as a fundraiser for Bishop Mora Salesian High School, big donations to the Boyle Heights institution poured in from developers and others seeking to do business in the district. Plenty of questions flew about money and undue influence.
Richelle Huizar’s campaign was cooked before it ever really started.
José Huizar stayed out of sight for weeks after the raid. He eventually returned to city hall, but is not nearly the force he once was.
In the past year, his biggest moves have involved seeking out sites and funding for affordable housing complexes and homelessness support efforts in the 14th, and in August there was an effort to crack down on illegal garbage dumping in the city. He has pushed some streetscape improvements, and a downtown monument to “Bracero” workers that he opened in September.
Yet major moves or policy proposals that require extensive political backing have largely fallen by the wayside. Once flashy attempts to revive Pershing Square and develop a downtown streetcar now are rarely discussed. Huizar’s Night on Broadway, a massive street party, was canceled last January. In March, the Eagle Rock community newspaper the Boulevard Sentinel asked “Where’s Huizar? His Vanishing Profile Raises Questions for Constituents.”
Other Big Names
So what are the feds looking far? Even a year later, there are only breadcrumbs. The Salesian High School story sparked speculation of an investigation into political favoritism. Then, in January, Seamus Hughes, a George Washington University counterterrorism expert, tweeted about a warrant related to the investigation. The warrant mentioned other parties beyond Huizar, among them some downtown developers and area political figures including Wesson’s chief of staff, Deron Williams, Councilman Curren Price, and Ray Chan, who had once been Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. It all hinted at the idea of Huizar being only the proverbial tip of the iceberg in a larger City Hall investigation, but again, no one has been charged and no arrests have been made.
Speaking of the unknown, it’s also unclear whether a second FBI raid of local government has any ties to the Huizar activity. In July agents served warrants on the office of City Attorney Mike Feuer and the headquarters of the Department of Water and Power. Feuer’s office said the action was related to a class action settlement and litigation tied to a DWP billing scandal.
Is No News Good News?
The lack of noise and charges after 365 days might lead some to think that a case against Huizar is petering out. Then again, it might not mean anything. The FBI is known to take its time, and proceedings could be complicated and lengthy if they involve looking into multiple high-profile individuals. Plus, the L.A. branch of the FBI has plenty of other things on its plate.
Also, if you go back to the beginning, the indications of big aims linger: the FBI usually focuses on matters such as terrorism or major crimes, and agents don’t tend to mess with matters on a city level unless they think there is a hefty payoff. But the bureau has invested a lot of resources in Huizar, and after the public spectacle of the raids, the brass knows that people are watching and waiting.
Viewers of crime procedurals might be conditioned to expect a quick and tidy resolution, but the Huizar saga is no TV show.
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