A former top aide to City Councilman Jose Huizar pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in a $1.5 million pay-to-play scheme tied to the approval of large building projects.
George Esparza, 33, entered the plea to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge and could face up to 20 years in prison, although he is cooperating with prosecutors and is expected to receive a lesser term when he is sentenced in February.
From 2013 to 2018, Esparza was a special assistant to Huizar, who also is facing a racketeering conspiracy charge but hasn’t yet entered a plea. He was suspended from the City Council after his arrest last month.
Prosecutors said Esparza, Huizar and their cronies illegally profited from development of the city’s burgeoning downtown district by soliciting bribes from developers to ensure their projects received favorable treatment and perks.
The payoffs from developers — known as “friends of the office” — included $500,000 in cash in brown paper bags, more than $250,000 worth of casino chips, hotel stays, spa visits, fine dining and campaign contributions, prosecutors contend.
One of the developers, a Chinese billionaire, sought to build a 77-story tower in Huizar’s district that would become the largest skyscraper west of the Mississippi River. The developer, who already had a hotel in the district, allegedly provided benefits worth $800,000 to Huizar and others that included a dozen trips to Las Vegas casinos and funds to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against the councilman.
Earlier this month, former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty to a federal charge for lying to the FBI about receiving gifts and money from a businessman involved in development projects, including envelopes stuffed with $15,000 in cash.
A real estate development consultant and a former political fundraiser also have pleaded guilty to federal charges.