The federal case against former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander has ended with more bang than whimper. This morning, United States District Judge John F. Walter sentenced the ex-Northwest San Fernando Valley rep to 14 months in prison, putting the kibosh on attorneys’ efforts to secure a veritable slap on the wrist for the 50-year-old, who pleaded guilty in July to falsifying material facts.
Walter’s ruling carries both an immediate message and hints at a fascinating future. Front and center is the judicial declaration that crime still doesn’t pay, especially when it involves lying multiple times to investigators and, on another occasion, driving in a car with a businessperson, cranking up the music in an effort to drown out any potential listening device, and then urging the person—who happens to be a confidential informant—to lie about what transpired.
The FBI doesn’t like that type of obfuscation, and apparently neither did Walter, who stated that the ex-District 12 councilman’s conduct “undermined the public trust,” and also gave Englander a $15,000 fine and three years of supervised release. The sentence wasn’t as severe as the full two years in prison that prosecutors had recommended, but it was well beyond the simple probation and $9,500 fine that had also been broached.
The sentence concludes the first part of a sprawling investigation into City Hall corruption and the local real estate development scene that the U.S. Department of Justice cheekily christened Operation Casino Loyale. Altogether nine people have been charged, and two development firms with huge downtown projects in the works have agreed to pay a total of $2.25 million in penalties. The vast majority of those involved have reached agreements with prosecutors, pleaded guilty, and pledged to cooperate with an investigation that federal officials even today described as “ongoing.” Englander is the first person to be sentenced.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Englander’s prison term is what potential groundwork it lays for others caught in the net, in particular disgraced former District 14 Councilman Jose Huizar, and Ray Chan, who once helmed the city Department of Building and Safety and later was a deputy mayor under Eric Garcetti. Huizar and Chan both face numerous charges; each has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
A lot could happen between now and June 22, when a trial for Huizar and others is scheduled to begin. But if the amount of money involved plays any role in determining penalties, then things could get interesting. Englander was accused of pocketing $15,000 from a businessperson seeking his help. Court documents, meanwhile, paint Huizar as the central figure in a ring known as the CD-14 Enterprise that allegedly received more than $1.5 million in illicit benefits.
Potential sentences are hard to predict, but the racketeering charge that Huizar faces alone could result in a maximum term of 20 years in federal prison if he is tried and found guilty. Money laundering and honest services fraud charges that he faces could also each result in two-decade prison terms.
Huizar and Chan will each get their day in court, but Monday was all about Englander. It’s fitting that he was the first sentenced, because he was the first person charged by the DOJ. On March 9, 2020, he surrendered to FBI agents after being named in a seven-count indictment returned by a grand jury. Less than three weeks later he agreed to plead guilty to one count of scheming to falsify material facts.
It is all a stunning turn of events for Englander, who went from council aide to winning the District 12 seat in 2011 to being so powerful that he was unopposed when he sought re-election four years later. More conservative than most of his council compatriots, Englander proudly touted his status as an LAPD reserve officer, and he earned a spot on the council’s Planning and Land-Use Management committee, which holds sway over proposed large real estate projects (Huizar would chair the committee).
The court documents detailing the councilman’s transgressions were brutal in their frankness, and seemed positioned not only to punish, but also to embarrass Englander, who pulled one of the head-scratchiest moves ever seen in local politics when he abruptly resigned his council seat at the end of 2018 to take a job at a sports and entertainment firm. By that point Englander was under investigation and had endured multiple meetings with federal officials, though the public was unaware of what was happening.
Englander’s downfall stems from accepting money and goodies from a figure IDed in court documents as Businessperson A. The person had sought the councilman’s help in advancing his business, and during a 2017 trip to Las Vegas, Businessperson A met Englander in a casino bathroom and gave him an envelope with $10,000 in cash.
According to investigators, that turned out to be just an appetizer to an evening that might have rivaled what the crew in the movie The Hangover enjoyed. Court documents described how Businessperson A gave Englander $1,000 in casino chips, paid for a $2,481 group dinner, and then covered a $34,000 bottle service-fueled nightclub bill. At the end of the evening Businessperson A, according to federal authorities, hired a pair of female escorts and sent one to the married Englander’s room.
Later in the summer, authorities say, Businessperson A gave Englander another $5,000 in cash, this time in a bathroom at a golf tournament in Palm Springs; Englander later facilitated a meeting between the businessperson and a developer.
All that was sticky enough, but after the Feds sniffed out details of the arrangement and the wild night, Englander sought to cover up the proceedings. Federal officials said the councilman lied to the FBI and prosecutors on three occasions in 2017 and 2018. He also instructed Businessperson A to mislead investigators, investigators say, including when the two drove around downtown with the music blaring.
Englander’s legal team had sought to avoid prison, and numerous family members, associates and supporters sent letters to the judge urging that he not do time. At the hearing, held over Zoom, Englander acknowledged his transgressions, saying, “I own what I did” and apologizing to his wife and daughters.
Walter was not swayed, declaring that “justice [was] owed to society.”
The big question now is, what does justice do next?
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