City hall watchers are still agog over former Valley councilman Mitch Englander voluntarily surrendering to the FBI on Monday morning and being charged with seven criminal counts, including making false statements and witness tampering. Although the ex-12th District rep is free on $50,000 bail and faces a May 5 trial date, the saga continues to unfold.
With allegations of escorts, cash secretly handed over in a Las Vegas casino bathroom, and attempts to drown out listening devices by cranking up a car stereo, the Englander affair contains plot points that seem pulled from a modern noir novel. Instead, it’s all (alleged) reality, and is laid out in a 27-page indictment.
Plenty more is expected to come, but at this point, here are eight things to know, and to expect, about the curious case of Mitch Englander.
We are all Jon Snow
One of the great moments in Game of Thrones occurred when Ygritte the Wildling told her heroic love interest, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” What the Englander case reveals is that, when it comes to city hall investigations, virtually every Angeleno is Jon Snow.
While the raid of Councilman José Huizar’s home and offices in November 2018 was a clarion call that the FBI was digging into suspected “pay-to-play” schemes in city hall (it’s worth reminding that Huizar has never been arrested or charged with any crime), no one in the general public had ever publicly mentioned Englander being a target of an investigation. I’ve heard a cavalcade of rumors and suspicions about multiple local office holders, but precisely zero involved Englander, who was first elected to the approximately $200,000-a-year gig in 2011, and was re-elected four years later.
Federal officials getting all the way to an indictment without anything leaking, particularly in this hyperconnected age, is amazing. It was easier to find GOT spoilers than it was to uncover Englander indicators.
FBI investigators are really good at their jobs
Not only did the Feds keep everything related to Englander secret, but they jumped on the case early. According to the indictment, a trip to Las Vegas involving Englander, the anonymous Businessperson A, and other individuals took place “on or about June 1, 2017.” But by June 5, the FBI had begun investigating whether the businessperson “provided personal benefits” to Englander and other city employees.
How this did this happen so quickly? According to the indictment, it was “based on information obtained in a judicially authorized intercepted phone call.”
Put this through this translation machine and it looks like the Feds already had an ongoing wiretap approved by a judge, or heard something juicy and acted with rocket-like speed when the councilman’s name came up. They pounced, and by August they had turned Businessperson A, who began cooperating with authorities.
It sure would be fun to see this all unfold in an eight-episode Netflix series titled Think of Englander.
So that’s why he quit
In October 2018, Englander announced that he would resign his council seat by the end of the year. It was a stunning and baffling decision. The 15 City Council members are among the most powerful individuals in Los Angeles, each representing about 250,000 constituents. This is not a gig you just walk away from.
At the time I and others tried to read the tea leaves, but as Englander prepared to take an executive role at the sports and live event business Oak View Group (he left the company some time last year), the best theory was that after finishing fifth in a 2016 run for County Supervisor, Englander felt he had maxed out in local politics, and was seizing an opportunity to earn big in the private sector.
Only 17 months after that initial announcement did we learn that Englander was already ensnared in the investigation. He and an attorney would meet with federal investigators three times while he was in office, and the alleged false statements he gave during those interviews make up some of the charges against him.
Englander may never have crossed paths with Andrew W.K., but the hedonistic entertainer could certainly tweak one of his signature lines to, “When it’s time to party Mitch will always party hard.”
Just consider the epic night detailed in the indictment: Businessperson A arranged for the councilman and his staffers to have their rooms comped, and the businessman then picked up the tab for a $2,481 dinner. The group later decamped to a nightclub in another hotel and racked up a ridiculous $34,000 bottle service and bar bill, with Businessperson A paying $24,000 and an unidentified developer shelling out another $10,000.
I have so many questions! How many people were there? How much did they drink? What did they drink? Were they sipping out of golden goblets? Was this the single most fun night ever enjoyed by a group of human beings?
And all this is before the nightcap, when Businessperson A paid $300 to $400 each for a pair of female escorts, one of whom, according to the indictment, was instructed to go to Englander’s room “to provide him with services.”
I think everyone made this joke right away, but unfortunately for Mitch Englander, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas.
Will these guys never learn?
Time and again, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, politicians and other power players think they can get away with misdeeds, whether outright corruption or #MeToo-style abuses of authority. In every instance, one has to question why these individuals think they won’t get caught.
History shows that they almost always get nabbed, from Congressman John Jenrette in the 1980 ABSCAM sting to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevic being charged with corruption in 2008 to Harvey Weinstein being sentenced to 23 years in prison just this week.
The Englander indictment alleges, among other things, that he accepted $10,000 in a Las Vegas casino bathroom from Businessperson A, and less than two weeks later took another $5,000 in cash from the same individual, this time in a Palm Springs bathroom. Then he allegedly sought to have Businessperson A lie to investigators, without knowing the individual was already working with the Feds.
Aside from questioning the predilection for doing business in bathrooms, it makes one wonder why Englander thought he was so unique that he would avoid detection.
The biggest FBI election entanglement since Jim Comey bopped Hillary Clinton
The FBI had been on the case since June 2017, or more than two and a half years. Yet the Englander news did not break until March 9, which was six days after voters went to the polls. This matters, because one of last week’s ballot items was for Englander’s former District 12 seat. John Lee, Englander’s onetime chief of staff, was running for re-election after winning a special election to complete Englander’s term last August.
This week, Lee acknowledged that he was on that infamous Vegas trip, and had been interviewed by the FBI. He said on Twitter that he has cooperated with investigators.
(1/2) I was in Las Vegas with Councilmember Englander in June 2017, and I did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip. I was unaware of any illegal activities for which Councilmember Englander is being charged.
— Councilmember John Lee (@CD12LA) March 9, 2020
Was the timing of Englander’s indictment, days after an election, intentional? One school of thought is that the FBI operates solely on its own schedule, based on when evidence is ready, silly L.A. politics be darned. But an argument could be made that they did Lee a massive favor by waiting until after voters went to the polls. Take it further and one could insinuate that by announcing the charges after the election, the FBI helped every single City Council incumbent, as this kind of news before election day could have smeared every sitting politician, making it seem as if they all danced about in a house of corruption.
The angriest person in L.A. should be Loraine Lundquist
Last summer, Lundquist, an educator and astrophysicist, lost the special election to Lee, and she is currently trailing him for a second time as votes are being counted from the March 3 election. A number of people have called for Lee to resign, and have cited a passage in the indictment that mentions Englander and a city staffer (who turned out to be Lee) each sending $442 reimbursement checks to Businessperson A in August 2017.
Lundquist and her supporters have every right to be furious. Currently she is just a couple percentage points behind Lee. The timing of the indictment could have made a difference.
Will Lee resign? One never says never, but if you want a precedent, look to the recent past: despite the public shaming Huizar endured, he never stepped down.
This may be just the beginning
The penultimate paragraph of the press release announcing the federal charges contains the line, “The case against Englander is part of an ongoing public corruption investigation.” The Feds don’t goof around with verbiage, and when the word “ongoing” appears, it’s intentional. Add in the aforementioned wiretap, and there’s the possibility that this could be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Who else might be charged is already a favored parlor game among city hall watchers, and another big topic of discussion is whether Englander will roll over on anyone else. That can’t be discounted considering that, if convicted on all seven counts, he faces up to 50 years in federal prison.
Where this goes is impossible to say, but given how the Englander affair came out of nowhere, nothing and no one in city hall should be ruled out.
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