A longtime assistant to ex-Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar testified Friday of his former boss’ persistent efforts to collect $200,000 in cash bribes the young man had been stashing for the corrupt powerbroker, beginning with a secretly recorded meeting in Huizar’s private City Hall bathroom.
Former assistant George Esparza said Huizar ushered him into the bathroom after Esparza told the former councilman he was quitting his job amid a budding FBI investigation. Huizar pleaded guilty in January to racketeering and tax evasion after allegedly using his power to stall real estate projects in his district until developers paid him bribes in the form of cash, campaign contributions, lavish gambling trips to Las Vegas, and other favors.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Let’s talk in the bathroom,’” Esparza told Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har of their discussions about one particular bribe. “I just knew he was going to bring up the cash.”
Esparza’s Friday testimony was made in the federal corruption trial of Raymond Chan, a retired Los Angeles deputy mayor for economic development who is accused of being a central player in Huizar’s sprawling and years-long bribery scheme.
“[I] wanted to protect myself,” Esparza said regarding his decision to covertly record the bathroom meeting with his cell phone. In the audio, which was played to the jury on Friday, Huizar can be heard telling Esparza that he has “a lot of expenses now” because of his wife’s political campaign, and “I’m gonna need money that’s mine.”
Esparza replies: “This is scary, boss.”
In the courtroom, Har asked Esparza, “What was scary to you?”
“The FBI,” Esparza answered.
Huizar can also be heard in the recording agreeing that the men should wait a few months before touching the money. Esparza said in court they first agreed to postpone handing over the $200,000 until April 2018, then again delayed it to October 2018. By that time, Esparza had been speaking with the FBI and was ignoring Huizar’s increasingly hostile text messages.
The money, which was eventually seized by the FBI, had, at one point, been stashed in two liquor boxes—Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Don Julio—which Esparza kept in a bedroom at his grandparents’ home. Esparza said Huizar even stopped by his grandparents’ home when Esparza wasn’t there and told Esparza’s grandfather that his grandson owed the 15-year City Council veteran money.
“I was really pissed off because he was trying to intimidate my grandfather,” Esparza said, adding that Huizar had never before visited his home in the eight years he’d worked for him. Jurors saw a still image from Esparza’s grandparents’ home video surveillance system that showed Huizar at the front door.
Esparza, who was on the stand for about 70 minutes Friday, is a key witness against Chan, who faces decades in prison for allegedly acting as a Chinese-to-English translator between the former councilman and the Chinese developers he sought to extort.
One such developer willing to participate in Huizar’s pay-to-play scheme was Dae Yong Lee, also known as David Lee, who Esparza testified paid Huizar $200,000 in two $100,000 cash payments. The payments were allegedly funneled through Esparza and Justin Kim, a real estate appraiser and Huizar fundraiser.
Esparza also testified Friday that Chan was a key connection between Huizar and billionaire Chinese developers Wei Haung and Fuer Yuan, who had major projects in Huizar’s downtown Los Angeles district. Esparza said Chan often referred to Huizar as “the king of downtown” and “big boss of downtown.”
Esparza said he and Chan had a “big brother, little brother relationship” when they worked together at City Hall. He described how Chan arranged for Huang and Huizar to meet over an extravagant traditional Chinese dinner that Esparza also attended. Esparza recalled seemingly endless servings of food coupled with copious amounts of wine that Haung also gifted in bottles to Huizar and Chan.
Asked by Har if he received a bottle, too, Esparza answered, “Uh, no.” Several jurors laughed loudly in response. It highlighted the slightly sheepish tone Esparza brought to his testimony as he looked back on the eight years he spent with one of Los Angeles’ top power brokers.
Esparza interned for the councilman before becoming a full-time staffer in 2009 at the age of 22. He grew to be Huizar’s “closest confidant,” testifying that he would “be with the councilmember every single meeting” and worked to identify developers to target for bribes. He said Huizar would sometimes refer to these developers as a “fat cow” or a “big whale,” and that Huizar’s specific demands for bribes would “depend on what his mood was that day,” but could include such items as concert and sports tickets, golf clubs, ties, or t-shirts.
Esparza’s testimony also touched on his naivety. He told the court when Huizar initially asked him to store Lee’s $200,000 in cash bribes, he believed that Huizar simply trusted him with his money, but now realizes his former boss wanted Esparza to keep the money “just in case the FBI came into our lives so he wouldn’t be caught with it.”
Esparza pleaded guilty in June 2020 to one count of racketeering conspiracy and is out of jail on bond. Prosecutors agreed to recommend an 87-month prison sentence; sentencing is scheduled for June 5.
Huizar had long been scheduled to go to trial with Chan, but he took a plea deal in January that calls for prosecutors to recommend he spend no more than 13 years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for April 3. Huizar is not expected to testify in Chan’s trial, but his estranged wife, Richelle Rios, is listed as a prosecution witness.
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