An aide to a longtime Los Angeles City Councilman agreed to plead guilty Wednesday to a federal charge in an ongoing FBI “pay-to-play” investigation inside City Hall that includes alleged distribution of $1 million in bribes and inducements, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.
The alleged bribery included payments from a Chinese firm seeking to construct a 77-story building slated to be the tallest west of the Mississippi.
George Esparza, 33 of East Los Angeles, served as a “special assistant” to council member Jose Huizar until 2017 and admitted to his role in a criminal enterprise from early 2013 through November 2018. Esparza, who faces up to 20 years in prison, began cooperating with federal authorities two years ago.
“This is the worst corruption scandal in modern Los Angeles history,” said Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who served on the L.A. City Council from 2001 to 2009. “If anyone asks why, I say that the answer is the zeros. These are acts that have thousands if not millions of dollars attached to them.”
Prosecutors describe a criminal enterprise that involved several schemes in which developers or their intermediaries paid bribes to ensure certain construction projects were approved by the council and its powerful Planning and Land Use Management, or PLUM, committee, which was headed by Huizar.
Huizar is not specifically named in the court papers, but Esparza is described as having worked for “Councilman A” who represents the district that includes downtown Los Angeles, where developments named in the indictment were located.
Federal authorities allege Esparza and “Councilman A” received cash, consulting and retainer fees, favorable loans, casino chips, commercial and private jet flights, comped stays at luxury hotels, expensive meals, concert and sports tickets as well as prostitution services, according to the documents.
One of the most notable schemes centered on the skyscraper project described as Project E, which was being developed by a Chinese company run by a Chinese billionaire, referred to as “Chairman E”
The chairman of a Chinese development firm “facilitated the payment of $600,000” to help the council member “confidentially resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit” filed by a former employee in 2014 when he was facing re-election, according to the documents.
In exchange for $600,000, the council member routinely assisted with the firm’s chairman’s requests, including pushing through a City Council resolution recognizing their achievements and contributions to the economy in the district, the plea agreement states.
The ongoing corruption probe has already swept up a real estate consultant, a political fundraiser and former City Council member Mitchell Englander, who faces up to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstructing a public corruption investigation related to his acceptance of gifts — including cash, hotel rooms and expensive meals — from a developer during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs in 2017.
“This case feels like the end of a Netflix series where all of the seemingly unconnected plot lines seem to come together,” Weiss said, indicating he expects more charges or guilty pleas.