Friday, October 30, 2020

Real estate consultant pleads guilty in Los Angeles City Hall bribery scandal

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A real estate development consultant pleaded guilty Friday to a federal racketeering charge for his role in a pay-to-play scheme at City Hall allegedly tied to now-suspended Councilman Jose Huizar‘s approval of large building projects in downtown Los Angeles.

George Chiang, 41, of Granada Hills pleaded guilty via videoconference to one federal count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years behind bars. Because of his cooperation, Chiang is expected to receive a far lighter penalty when he is sentenced on Feb. 22.

Chiang is among four defendants to agree to plead guilty in the continuing federal public corruption probe of City Hall, and was the second to formally enter his plea before a judge.

The central figure in the five-year probe, Huizar was arrested Tuesday and charged with accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects. Huizar, who was suspended from the council following his arrest, said he “intends to respond to the government’s allegations in court,” not in the media, according to his attorneys.

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Chiang admitted in his plea agreement to playing a role in a scheme allegedly run by Huizar in which a Chinese real estate company bribed city officials in exchange for approval to build a 77-story skyscraper in the councilman’s district.

Huizar represented downtown L.A. and was the chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), the powerful panel that reviews the city’s largest development projects. After FBI agents raided his home and offices in November 2018, Huizar was removed from his committee assignments, including his role in PLUM.

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said the continuing probe has exposed “significant and blatant corruption” at City Hall, and indicated more charges could be forthcoming.

Huizar is scheduled for arraignment on July 20.

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Earlier this month, Justin Kim, a former City Hall fundraiser, pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge for arranging a $500,000 bribe for Huizar.

Kim’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17 but prosecutors have asked for a six-month continuance because they plan to call him to the stand if Huizar’s case goes to trial.

Former Huizar aide George Esparza agreed last month to plead guilty to the racketeering conspiracy count and has been cooperating in the investigation. A date has not yet been set for Esparza to plead guilty.

In March, ex-City Councilman Mitch Englander separately agreed to plead guilty to scheming to falsify facts in a probe of his acceptance of cash and other gifts from a businessman — the same one accused of bribing Huizar. He is expected to enter his plea on July 7.

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