Thursday, April 22, 2021

Former L.A. Councilman Mitchell Englander surrenders in corruption probe


Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander has been charged with obstructing an investigation into his alleged acceptance of cash, female escort services, hotel rooms and expensive meals from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, federal officials announced Monday.

Englander, 49, is the first City Hall figure to be publicly charged in connection with a sweeping probe that has delved into the worlds of L.A. politics and real estate development. In all, he faces seven counts — three of witness tampering, three for allegedly making false statements and a single count of scheming to falsify facts.

He surrendered to federal authorities Monday morning and is expected to make an initial appearance in court Monday afternoon. Englander could not immediately be reached for comment.

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The federal indictment alleges that Englander got cash, lavish meals and escort services from an unidentified businessman who was “seeking to increase his business opportunities in the city.” That businessman later began cooperating with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in their investigation.

In June 2017, Englander and one of his top aides went to a Las Vegas resort and casino with the businessman, along with another city staffer, a lobbyist and a real estate developer, according to the indictment.

The businessman got them hotel rooms and “amenities ordinarily limited to VIP customers,” investigators found. At the resort, Englander took an envelope containing $10,000 in cash from the businessman in a bathroom, according to the indictment.

The businessman also gave Englander roughly $1,000 in casino chips, treated the group to $2,481 in dinner and drinks at a restaurant at the Vegas resort and paid approximately $24,000 for bottle service and alcohol at a nightclub, federal investigators found. In the early morning, after they returned to their hotel, the businessman told Englander he was ordering female escorts for the group, whom he paid $300 to $400 in cash for their services, the indictment states.

Englander is the only person identified by name in the indictment, but his former aide John Lee, who was later elected to fill his seat, said Monday that he was on the Las Vegas trip with Englander and “did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip.”

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“I was unaware of any illegal activities for which Councilmember Englander is being charged,” Lee said in a statement. “I completely cooperated with the FBI when they contacted me for voluntary interviews in July and August 2017 and will continue to do so.”

Lee recently ran for reelection, facing off with college educator Loraine Lundquist, and has been ahead in votes tallied in that race so far. In a statement Monday, Lundquist said that voters should have had this “critical information” before they went to the polls and demanded, “What did John Lee know, when did he know it, and was he involved in the cover-up?”

“The fact of the matter is Englander engineered his succession plan in the special election, propping up John Lee, even though he was under federal investigation and was fully aware of it,” Lundquist said.

The indictment also details meetings Englander had with the unnamed businessman in Palm Springs in June 2017.

Englander allegedly accepted an envelope with $5,000 in cash from the businessman during a brief encounter in a casino bathroom while the men attended a golf tournament.

A week later, Englander brought the businessman to lunch with a person identified in the indictment as “Developer B,” whom prosecutors described as the CEO of a construction company. The purpose of the lunch, the indictment said, was to give the businessman a chance to introduce himself and his company to the developer.

After the lunch, the developer emailed the men to thank them for the lunch and suggested another meeting to allow the businessman to make a “presentation,” according to the indictment.

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FBI agents and prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s public corruption unit turned their attention to Englander in June 2017, when they intercepted a phone call in which the participants discussed perks and payments the unnamed businessman allegedly provided to public officials, according to the indictment.

The call led investigators to begin digging into whether Englander, a second City Council member referred to in the indictment as “Councilmember A,” and two staffers who worked for Englander and the unnamed council member had received “personal benefits” from the businessman.

The following month, agents and prosecutors approached Englander’s staffer. After two requests for an interview, the staffer agreed, speaking to investigators about the Las Vegas trip, according to the indictment.

Investigators also confronted the businessman, who agreed to be interviewed with his attorney present. A few weeks later, the businessman accepted an offer from prosecutors to formally cooperate in the investigation. Such cooperation deals offer defendants the chance to win a more lenient sentence in exchange for their help gathering evidence against other suspects and testifying against others at trials.

After learning of the federal investigation, Englander told the businessman who had lavished him with cash and meals to lie to investigators, including about the “massage lady” in Las Vegas, according to the indictment.

He also contacted the businessman through an encrypted messaging service, telling him that he wanted to reimburse him for portions of the Las Vegas trip, the indictment states. Federal investigators say that Englander then sent a check to the businessman meant to appear as if he had sought to reimburse the businessman before the FBI contacted him.

In interviews with the FBI, Englander repeatedly made false statements, including about the perks he had gotten from the businessman, the indictment alleges. The same day that he resigned from the council, Englander was asked if he had gotten anything other than a hotel room, dinners and some casino chips that he had paid back, the indictment states.

Englander replied, “Not that I recall,” according to the indictment.

Englander also failed to report the $15,000 he had received from the businessman on annual forms that lawmakers are required to fill out, federal investigators alleged.

If convicted of the seven charges, Englander could face a maximum of 50 years in federal prison.

Englander was first elected to the council in 2011 and reelected in 2015, then announced he was stepping down before the end of his term to take a job with Oak View Group, a sports and entertainment firm. As of February, he identified himself as president of the government relations group E-Venture.

When he first ran for City Council, Englander campaigned as the “official public safety candidate,” touting his support from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, as well as other law enforcement groups. In one campaign mailer, he can be seen in his LAPD uniform, which he wore as a reserve officer.

“Mitch Englander is the official public safety candidate, endorsed by the men and women who fight to keep the Valley safe!” the mailer reads.

Englander represented the northwestern stretches of the San Fernando Valley on the council, including neighborhoods like Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills, and sat on three of the most powerful committees at City Hall — one focused on the budget, another on public safety, and a third that vetted real estate development. The councilman also served as an LAPD reserve officer and made an unsuccessful run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Englander announced he was planning to leave the council less than a month before FBI agents descended on the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar and toted out boxes of materials in November 2018.

Real estate developers with projects in downtown Los Angeles soon started getting grand jury subpoenas asking them to identify donations they had made to political committees that backed Huizar and his wife, who was launching her own bid for the council.

A federal search warrant filed more than a year ago indicated that agents have been seeking evidence of potential crimes including bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering involving more than a dozen people, including Huizar and aides in his office; Councilman Curren Price, who represents part of South Los Angeles; Deron Williams, who works as a top aide to Councilman Herb Wesson; and former Department of Building and Safety chief Ray Chan, among other city officials and business figures.

Federal officials have not publicly announced charges against those individuals. Englander was not mentioned in that 2018 search warrant.


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