LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – More than 18 months after federal authorities raided his office, longtime Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar became the fifth and most high-profile person to be arrested in an ongoing corruption investigation in which officials at City Hall accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from real estate developers.
The 51-year-old Huizar was arrested at his Boyle Heights home Tuesday on one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
He made his initial court appearance Tuesday afternoon, where U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul L. Abrams ordered him to be released on $100,000 bond.
He has not entered a plea to the racketeering charge. A preliminary hearing has been tentatively set for July 14, and an arraignment for July 20.
He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted as charged.
In November of 2018, the FBI raided Huizar's home and offices.
However, Huizar was not arrested at the time and remained in office despite repeated calls to resign. He was also removed from several council committees, including the "powerful" Planning and Land Use Committee, "where he decided which projects lived, and which projects died," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
The 116-page affidavit "accuses Huizar of running a pay-to-play scheme in which he and his associates solicited bribes from developers to insure that their project received favorable treatment during the city's approval process," Hanna said.
Huizar was able to leverage considerable influence, Hanna said, because much of the real estate development in recent years was centered in the area he represented, Boyle Heights.
During that November 2018 search, $129,000 in cash was found stashed in a closet, prosecutors reported Tuesday.
Hanna said that one real estate developer gave Huizar $500,000 in cash in paper bags to help resolve a labor dispute. The political fundraiser who served as the middleman and helped facilitate that money transfer reached a plea deal with prosecutors earlier this year.
Furthermore, Huizar was provided more than a dozen trips to casinos in the U.S. and abroad in which he was given $250,000 in gambling chips.
A Chinese real estate developer put up $600,000 in collateral so that Huizar could get a bank loan to pay off a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment, the complaint alleges. When Huizar stopped making payments on the loan, the collateral was used to pay off the remainder of the loan.
Huizar planned to have his wife run for his seat in order to be able to continue the pattern of corruption, Hanna disclosed.
"Unfortunately, (L.A.'s) grand exterior has concealed a cancer, a disease of elected officials and staff members breaking a series of laws in order to line their own pockets, maintain power, and keep open a spigot of illicit bribes and other benefits," Hanna said.
On Tuesday afternoon, a number of protesters showed up outside Huizar's home to serve a symbolic eviction notice and call for him to resign from office.
"Someone will have to replace him," Charlie Olivia, a Boyle Heights resident, said. "Somebody with a good background and good morality."
In March, former L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander was arrested on charges that he accepted thousands of dollars in cash, a female escort and expensive hotel rooms from a businessman who operated companies in L.A. and was involved in major development projects and wanted to increase his business with the city. He agreed to plead guilty a few weeks after his arrest.
Englander represented the San Fernando Valley's 12th District from 2011 to December 2018, when he abruptly stepped down despite having two years remaining on his term.
Last month, a former aide to Huizar, 33-year-old George Esparza, agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge in connection with the bribery scheme.
A real estate development consultant agreed to a plea deal in the case last month as well,
In December 2019, partly in response to the Huizar case, the city council unanimously passed an ordinance which bans real estate developers from contributing to political candidates running for city office.
Huizar has represented District 14 since 2005, which is mostly made up by the Boyle Heights area. He is prevented from running again due to term limits when his current term expires in November.
He has faced several legal issues since taking office. In 2012, he was involved in a traffic accident in which he rear-ended another vehicle. The city was forced to pay up to $185,000 as part of a settlement.
In 2014, the city settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former staff member.
L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez issued the following statement Tuesday:
"While today's announcement on the arrest of Councilmember Huizar is not unexpected, the horrendous and disgusting allegations leveled against him and others have painted a dark cloud over our City government for a long time now," said Council President Nury Martinez. "Effective today, I will begin the process of removing him from office so that the good people of Council District 14 and the City of Los Angeles will be fairly and honorably represented. That is our duty and we must do it."
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