Suspended LA Councilman José Huizar pleads not guilty to federal charges in alleged pay-to-play scheme

Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges alleging he ran a $1.5 million pay-to-play scheme in which developers were shaken down for cash bribes and campaign donations in exchange for his help getting high-rise projects through the city's approval process.

Huizar, 51, of Boyle Heights, entered his plea during a video conference in Los Angeles federal court. He is expected to return to court Wednesday morning before U.S. District Judge John Walter to schedule a trial date.

Huizar is charged in a 34-count federal grand jury indictment -- handed down last Thursday -- which alleges over 400 overt acts, including bribery, honest services fraud and money laundering, that the city councilman and co-defendants are accused of committing to further their criminal enterprise.

Huizar, the central figure in the five-year City Hall corruption probe, is accused of accepting at least $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects. He was suspended from the council following his arrest in June.


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In addition to a previously charged racketeering conspiracy count, the indictment charges Huizar with a dozen counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of honest services mail fraud, four counts of traveling interstate in aid of racketeering, six counts of bribery, five counts of money laundering, and one count each of structuring cash deposits to conceal bribes, making a false statement to a financial institution, making false statements to federal law enforcement, and tax evasion.

If convicted as charged, Huizar would face more than 100 years behind bars.

The councilman had represented downtown and the Eastside since 2005 and for several years was also the chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, the powerful panel that reviews the city's biggest development projects. He was stripped of all his committee assignments in November 2018, following FBI searches of his home and offices, and had scaled back his legislative activity before his suspension. His bi-weekly salary payments of $8,192.85 were terminated last month and his term ends in December.

During the search of his home, agents seized $129,000 in cash that was stashed in Huizar's closet and which, according to the indictment, he received from a Chinese billionaire and another businessperson seeking favors from him.

The 113-page indictment alleges that Huizar operated the scheme along with former aide George Esparza, real estate consultant George Chiang, political fundraiser Justin Kim and former Councilman Mitch Englander. An unnamed former deputy mayor was also allegedly involved in the scheme, according to prosecutors.

Huizar's previous attorney said that the councilman "intends to respond to the government's allegations in court." His representation has since been taken on by lawyers with the federal public defender's office.

Among the allegations, Huizar is accused of illegally accepting more than $800,000 in benefits from the unnamed billionaire who runs a multinational development firm and owns a hotel in the councilman's district. The executive provided $600,000 in collateral to fund the settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Huizar by a former staffer, allegations that threatened to derail his 2015 re-election campaign, according to the indictment.

Huizar is the fifth person to be charged in the ongoing corruption investigation being conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The other four defendants have pleaded guilty.

Esparza, Chiang and Kim -- who are all cooperating with the investigation -- are scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge John F. Walter in February.

Englander pleaded guilty on July 7 to charges of scheming to falsify material facts related to trips he took to Las Vegas and Palm Springs that were funded by a businessperson. Englander's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 7, also before Walter.