As City Councilmember Mitchell Englander drove in furtive circles through the thicket of one-way streets downtown, he turned to his passenger and whispered under the din of the radio. Moments before, he had boosted the volume to an ache-inducing roar, the better to hide his words if someone happened to be listening. It was imperative that no one should hear him roughly coaching the man sitting next to him to deliver short rehearsible falsehoods:
“You just say ‘I was so drunk I don’t remember calling.’”
“‘No I didn’t arrange a massage for anybody.’”
“‘He shook my hand and said hello, that was it.’”
“‘He asked me a couple times how much does he owe me, he and John owe me, and I didn’t have an amount.’”
“‘…he and John owe me…’”
“‘…he and John…’”
The passenger, Andy Wang, a purveyor of cabinets and so-called smart home electronics for new housing developments, was an agreeable companion. Englander spoke. And Wang repeated what he was told, rarely protesting. If Wang seemed nervous, wasn’t that understandable? Englander himself nearly turned right on a left-turn-only street, a token of the distracted worry bubbling under his self-presentation as the man who knows just what to say.
And worry was understandable, too. After all, Englander and Wang were both in serious legal jeopardy, evading the pursuit of investigators together even as they wheeled around Los Angeles synchronizing the beats of their lies. The business of the day was simple: Englander and Wang were attempting to keep themselves and their associates out of prison. There was no other reason for them to continue meeting, but circumstance had glued them together. What Wang and Englander each knew could cost the other man a lucrative career and even his freedom.
As it turned out, Englander’s worry was better founded than he knew. Andy Wang had been convinced six months prior to give up his friends in high places, and, on this day, February 12, 2018, Wang was recording every word the pair exchanged in furtherance of the federal case against Englander.
A transcript of Wang and Englander’s conversation, which was released Monday by federal prosecutors, offers Angelenos perhaps their most direct view to date into the sub rosa mechanics of political corruption in City Hall. What’s more: for the first time, a piece of evidence in this scandal appears to directly name Englander’s handpicked successor, John Lee – a man who has continued to skirt any accountability for his alleged actions.
By February 2018, the FBI had already compiled the makings of an era-defining local corruption case, a case which sprawled out at the highest levels of Los Angeles city government. Budding from the heart of the allegations in the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (or PLUM) committee, the spores of political rot were invested generously in other offices: council committees, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Building and Safety, the Planning Commission, the Board of Public Works, multiple City Council offices.
The mainline of the case was and is the racketeering and related charges laid against fallen Councilmember José Huizar and Ray Chan, a former deputy mayor to Eric Garcetti. When the scandal broke publicly, nine months later in November, the focus seemed to consist of actions the government said Huizar undertook to enrich himself and to secure the continuity of his power by seating his wife, Richelle, on the City Council after him.
Indeed, so much of the evidence for that case had been assembled already by early 2018 that it seemed even to Englander almost an afterthought that the government continued to pursue interviews with him. That made it all the more surprising, when, in March 2020, the first indictment handed down by the grand jury was not for Huizar or any known person of interest up to that point, but instead for Englander.
In an indictment and an arraignment hearing, the public learned how Englander had traveled in 2017 with a high-ranking member of his own staff and Huizar aide George Esparza to a lavish Vegas getaway weekend. While there, they toasted to one another’s health at an expense of nearly $25,000. They spent and they gambled and they partied and they shared the company of sex workers (according to the FBI, a trademark door prize for Andy Wang’s friends).
Wang footed the bill in all this not – or not only – because he was a convivial sort of man, but because he saw it as an investment opportunity. With the friendship of members of the PLUM committee, on which Huizar and Englander both sat, Wang’s social circle also grew to include the megadevelopers who could spend millions or more on furnishing their downtown towers with luxury cabinets, machine-learning thermostats, microwaves that talk.
The question of John Lee’s involvement in criminal and unethical conduct has been central to this case ever since Englander, his former boss, was named as a defendant. By the time Englander emerged from his arraignment at the downtown Federal Courthouse – looking for all the world like a man whose greatest wish was to be swallowed whole by his two-piece suit – John Lee was already awash in requests to clarify whether he was the unnamed co-conspirator referred to in filings as City Staffer B.
What was known about the anonymous staffer – the high station, his dates of employment with the city, the timing of his interviews with the FBI, his apparent personal closeness with Englander – all aligned with Lee, who had been Chief of Staff under Englander in the 12th district. Other 12th District staff who might have fit the bill stated unequivocally that they were not present on the trip to Las Vegas, while Lee stated unequivocally that he was there. And yet, he would resist calls for nearly a year to affirm that he was City Staffer B.
The fine, almost invisible, line walked by Councilmember Lee vanished forever with the release of the transcript of Englander and Wang’s conversation from 2018. Gone with it are the last remnants of any benefit of the doubt that the public might be expected to lend – that voters of the 12th Council District might be expected to lend – a sitting councilmember. For John Lee’s denials of guilt have consisted in his claim of absolute ignorance of any wrongdoing during his trip to Vegas with Englander and Wang.
These claims are and always have been fundamentally irreconcilable with the alleged behavior (since co-signed by Englander in his plea agreement) of City Staffer B.
City Staffer B was a full participant in the revelry in Las Vegas.
John Lee was unaware it was happening.
City Staffer B sent a backdated check in the same envelope with a similarly-falsfied check from Englander to Andy Wang in order to create a false record of reimbursement.
John Lee did “everything in his power” to pay back gifts he had received on the trip.
City Staffer B helped Englander perpetrate his cover-up by telling him what questions investigators had asked him so that he, Englander, George Esparza and Wang could all better match their stories.
John Lee cooperated to the fullest extent with the investigation.
These denials were destined to last only so long as there remained a veil, however thin, separating Lee and his alter ego. With the newest transcript document, which was publicized on Twitter by the public watchdogs at MichaelKohlhaas.org, that is now irretrievably lost to Councilmember Lee. It strains credulity far beyond the breaking point to suggest that Mitch Englander, in his efforts to put words in Andy Wang’s mouth, could be referring to any other John besides John Lee when he talks about the reimbursement money owed to Wang. There is no other candidate who matches the existing profile for City Staffer B and who also shares his name.
The time has come to discard the illusion of doubt about Lee’s role in this scandal and begin to ask what it means for this city that he is still retaining such magnificent influence within city government. The public must know and has a right to expect that its officials are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that corruption in City Hall is rooted out.
The response of Council to date has been to ignore Lee’s presence, despite the responsibility they each bear for each other’s actions. Among Monday’s filings in the Englander case, a line from the federal prosecutors stands out: “The citizens of Los Angeles expect and deserve more from their elected officials and public servants.” That applies not merely to Englander or Huizar or even John Lee.
The official that averts their eyes from the allegations against John Lee does not deserve the mantle of officialdom. The official that cannot bring themselves to censure misconduct or even to investigate it does not deserve the office they hold. But, in every district of this city, that is exactly what is happening.
City Council has said nothing about the conduct of their colleague John Lee. City Council has taken no action on the conduct of their colleague John Lee. City Council has sought no investigation into the conduct of their colleague John Lee. The citizens of Los Angeles expect and deserve more.