Why Hasn’t L.A. Councilman José Huizar Resigned? It’s Complicated

Some elected officials have demanded that the embattled Eastside councilmember step down—but leaving voluntarily may not be in the cards

In the past two months, an FBI/Department of Justice investigation has been rapidly heating up, and an as-yet-unnamed councilmember has emerged as a top target. Without naming the politician or his district, the Feds have painted a picture of a criminal operation so extensive and corrupt that it’s literally referred to as the “Council District A Enterprise.” A recent DOJ press release plainly declares, “The enterprise was led by a member of the Los Angeles City Council.”

District 14 councilmember José Huizar has never been named in the flood of public documents streaming from the DOJ, nor has he been arrested or charged with a crime. But City Hall watchers who enjoy connecting dots have been quick to point out the similarities between Huizar and the councilmember being described. Besides certain bits of biographical data that would appear to point to Huizar, who’s repped his Eastside district for 15 years, there have been numerous allusions to a relative seeking to run for the office holder’s seat. In September 2018, Huizar’s wife Richelle launched a campaign to succeed her husband, and then abandoned the effort two months later, after FBI agents raided the couple’s home and the councilman’s offices. Even his colleagues are speaking out. District 2 Councilman Paul Krekorian told LAist that “the facts and evidence described by federal prosecutors make clear that [Huizar] is the unnamed Councilmember referenced in their public statements.”

Two businessmen active in the downtown development scene have signed plea deals and agreed to cooperate with investigators; real estate appraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim admitted to trying to funnel $500,000 to a councilmember, and development consultant George Chiang pled guilty to conspiring to violate the RICO statue. His charging document spells out an attempt to direct $66,000 to a councilman, and orchestrate a $100,000 payment from a Chinese developer building a project in the district to the campaign of the relative running for the councilmember’s seat. Former City Councilman Mitch Englander has also pleaded guilty to a federal charge as part of the investigation.

The rhetoric is intensifying, and last week Council President Nury Martinez asked Huizar not to participate in future council votes until there is clarity on his legal future. Huizar agreed to heed her request so as not to be a “distraction.”

There are many questions swirling around Huizar, including what charges he might face, and who else could go down. Yet at this point, one query predominates: Given all the allegations and bad press, why doesn’t he just resign?

Before answering that, there’s another question to ask: Should Huizar resign? The answer is less about him than his constituents.

Huizar—who will be replaced by recent election victor Kevin de León in December—represents approximately 250,000 residents of communities including Boyle Heights, downtown, and Eagle Rock. Beyond any potential criminal act is the fact that it is now virtually impossible for him to deliver the level of service that L.A.’s other 14 councilmembers provide. This is actually nothing new, and politically Huizar has limped along for 18 months. After all, former Council President Herb Wesson stripped Huizar of his powerful committee posts shortly after the FBI raids. Almost instantly, the guy lost his juice. The recent guilty pleas have squeezed out any drops that remained.

Huizar asserts that he’s on the ball, and in a statement last week he said, “I intend to move forward with this work and carry out my duties to protect the safety and economic wellbeing of the residents of Los Angeles during this COVID-19 crisis.”

That’s a fine sentiment, but every day he stays in office is a day the district has a representative who can’t go to the mat when required—this includes the ability to advocate for big, worthy housing projects in District 14. Then there’s the embarrassment aspect: The world sees L.A. as the place with a sitting councilmember who is purportedly the head of a criminal enterprise engaged in bribery, extortion, and mail and wire fraud. That’s generally not a good thing in local government.

This leads back to the original question: Why won’t Huizar resign?

There’s one overarching reason: He has not been arrested or charged with any crime. Many people look at the guilty pleas of Kim, Englander, and Chiang and believe something is rotten in City Hall. They may be right, but there’s a difference between informed assumptions and being named in a federal indictment. Everything will change if charges are filed, but that hasn’t happened.

Add in the idea that, if Huizar resigns, he could be seen as acknowledging guilt. Walking away would enforce the suggestion that he broke laws. The longer he clings to his seat, the longer he and any remaining supporters can point to a world—possibly a very, very small world—where the Feds somehow have everything wrong, that perhaps he was entrapped, or maybe someone else was the string puller.

If Huizar withstood the outcry and didn’t resign after the 2018 FBI raids, he may seek to do the same now. Don’t be surprised if he stays until someone makes him go.

This sparks yet another question: Could someone, or something besides a federal indictment, make him go?

Yes, but that might require a unified, forceful political front, and L.A. is instead exhibiting a conflicted, scattered response.

After news of the Chiang plea deal broke last week, a batch of local politicians demanded that Huizar resign. Controller Ron Galperin tweeted, “the shocking information about his alleged corruption and serious breach of the public trust are not compatible with continuing as a representative of the people.” Media reports cited calls for Huizar to step down from councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Bob Blumenfield, as well as Krekorian. Councilman David Ryu had the same demand, and on Tuesday morning he went further by introducing legislation to create a city office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency.

Other politicians are being more cautious. Martinez only asked Huizar to stay away, not to quit. Mayor Eric Garcetti bristled at the alleged misdeeds, but refrained from calling for Huizar to resign, saying, “If he is indeed charged, he should step aside immediately.” City Attorney Mike Feuer had a similar stance.

Then there is the group of politicians who won’t say anything about what should happen. Mum’s the word!

All this sends a jumbled message that does nothing to alleviate the public disgust toward a City Hall infected with a pay-to-play atmosphere. Having Huizar avoid council meetings is like sweeping dirt under the rug and pretending it’s gone. That’s hiding the problem, not responding to it.

In another era, a strong leader might rally his or her fellow elected officials to stand together and make clear—by persuasion or strong-arming—that, for the good of the city, the alleged scofflaw needs to step down. That’s not happening here.

Is anything else preventing him from resigning?

Yes! Consider his tremendous salary, which in 2018, according to the City Clerk, was $216,397.92.

Pressure to leave office can pale in comparison to the need to cover expenses for a family with four children, and Huizar has to know that earning money after a resignation would be difficult. Even if he doesn’t vote at council meetings, he still currently makes more than $4,000 a week.

Any other benefits to staying?

Negotiating power.

There is speculation that, given the guilty pleas, Huizar and his attorneys are already talking to federal investigators. If he holds on to his council job it’s a chip to play in negotiations, the idea that if he agrees to step down, then prosecutors could reduce charge x or y. If he doesn’t have the council job, then he loses that chip, however sullied it may be.

RELATED: Bribes, Bags of Money, and Karaoke—the City Hall Corruption Probe Keeps Getting Wilder

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.