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Bribery Trial Offers Peek Into Council Member’s Alleged Shakedown Of Developers

Testimony in a federal bribery case offers a look at how Jose Huizar allegedly targeted developers with pending projects.

The trial involving a Downtown Los Angeles developer accused of bribing a former Los Angeles City Council Member Jose Huizar is offering a peek into how Huizar allegedly sought and got cash from developers looking to move their projects quickly through the city approvals process. 

“I was taught to be very clear on what the message was,” George Esparza, once a close aide to Huizar,  told a jury: “If you don’t help the councilman with his requests, your project will be stalled.”

Huizar, previously the chairman of the city’s planning and land use management committee, exercised considerable influence over when development projects were placed on the agenda for the committee. Esparza told a jury that Huizar exercised that influence often, and had “assigned him to find the point person for each real estate developer who had business before Huizar, then hit them up for political donations, hotel stays, event tickets or other benefits,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Esparza also told jurors that, in 2017, he was involved in two “money drops” for the council member in which he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from a developer’s intermediary, hiding it in empty liquor boxes before delivering it to Huizar, according to the LA Times. 

Esparza’s testimony was part of the ongoing federal bribery trial against downtown developer and property owner Dae Yong Lee, who is accused of paying Huizar $500K to lock in the council member’s support for a 20-story tower he wanted to build on Olympic Boulevard. That support, federal prosecutors say, involved using his labor union connections to make an appeal against the project go away.

Lee has pleaded not guilty to bribery, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. His attorneys said that Lee’s real estate consultant lied to him about what the money was for. Lee believed that the money was for consulting work, his lawyers said.

Esparza pleaded guilty in 2020 to a racketeering conspiracy charge, part of the far-reaching federal corruption case involving the council member. This is the first of three trials that have come out of that investigation. Huizar pleaded not guilty in December 2020 to charges including bribery, money laundering, and wire and mail fraud.

Last year, San Francisco-based Carmel Partners paid $1.2M to resolve a federal investigation into its relationship with Huizar regarding a 35-story project in the Arts District. In a statement to Bisnow at the time, Carmel Partners noted that the company admitted no wrongdoing and no charges were filed against it.