A federal judge denied Jose Huizar’s request to sharply scale back a sweeping Los Angeles City Hall corruption case, ruling Friday that prosecutors can move ahead with a trial of the former councilman on charges that include bribery and racketeering.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter rejected a motion by Huizar and two co-defendants to dismiss most of a 41-count indictment that alleges an array of payoffs to Huizar in exchange for his help getting high-rise projects approved.
Walter’s ruling delivered a setback to Huizar, who is accused of receiving $1.5 million in financial benefits, including campaign donations, private jet trips to Las Vegas and money he needed to resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by an aide.
Huizar, former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan and downtown hotel development company Shen Zhen New World I had asked the judge to dismiss 30 counts of racketeering, fraud, bribery and other crimes. Among their arguments, they said prosecutors had failed to meet narrow standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court for what defines bribery under federal law.
Charles J. Snyder, one of Huizar’s attorneys, told the judge during a Zoom hearing Friday that prosecutors had also crammed the indictment with allegations of conduct that “sounds vaguely distasteful” but is not criminal. He called it “wish-list evidence that the government wants to get before the jury.”
Walter disagreed, saying the charges prosecutors have laid out were consistent with Supreme Court rulings on the scope of federal corruption laws.
The trial of Huizar, Chan, Shen Zhen New World I and two others is scheduled to begin May 24. Prosecutors say Huizar headed a criminal enterprise whose members sought to enrich themselves through bribery, extortion, fraud and money laundering.
Huizar, 53, is also charged with tax evasion, making false statements to a bank in a loan application and lying to the FBI and federal prosecutors.
The case stems from a corruption scandal that has yielded guilty pleas from former City Councilman Mitchell Englander, former Huizar aide George Esparza, lobbyist Morrie Goldman, and real estate consultants Justin Kim and George Chiang.
Huizar’s legal team has defended his handling of real estate decisions, describing him as “an evangelist for robust development” in the downtown and Eastside district he represented from 2005 to 2020. He saw it as his responsibility to bring hotels, apartments, jobs and tourism to downtown, his attorneys said in court papers.
“He viewed investment and high-density growth as good for all of his constituents — not to mention his own political ambitions and the city at large,” they wrote.
Friday’s hearing was not a total victory for prosecutors. While considering whether the developers should be tried separately from Huizar to ensure they receive a fair trial, Walter expressed skepticism about some of the government’s arguments.
The judge ordered prosecutors to submit papers showing what evidence they have to back up their claim of a single fraud scheme, as opposed to a series of separate ones. Walter said he doubted prosecutors would succeed in establishing that Huizar and the developers pulled off a single, complex scheme to defraud the public.
If Walter does reject prosecutors’ theory of a single scheme, the government could be forced to wage three separate trials based on the allegations contained in the Huizar indictment. Prosecutors have objected to that possibility, saying such a move would create “a serious and unwarranted burden on the court, the jury pool, the government and the justice system as a whole.”
Lawyers for Shen Zhen New World I and developers Dae Yong Lee and 940 Hill have argued that their clients will not receive a fair trial if they appear before a jury in the same case as Huizar.
Lee simply had been seeking to develop a 20-story residential building in Huizar’s district and was unaware of the allegations surrounding other real estate projects in the case, said his lawyer, Ariel A. Neuman. Prosecutors, he said, are relying on “unsupported allegations” that Lee knew anything about the purported schemes.