The LA Podcast

John Lee: Resignation or Recall

by Scott Frazier
March 19, 2020

On March 9 – barely more than a week ago, but in a Los Angeles that nonetheless belongs to the irrecoverable pre-pandemic past – Mitchell Englander surrendered himself to federal custody in response to a warrant issued for his arrest. Englander, who, as a councilmember from 2011 until 2018, was until recently one of the most powerful people in the city, now has been formally accused of contriving during the final 16 months of his tenure to obstruct the ongoing FBI investigation into the corruption pervasive within City Hall.

If the indictment, handed down by a grand jury in January and unsealed last week, should prove true, Englander was exercising his influence as a member of the Planning and Land Use Management committee to connect a smart-home and cabinet vendor with some of the wealthiest apartment builders in the county. The indictment details trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, replete with clichés of low-rent criminality – gambling, lavish nightlife, transactional sex, and envelopes bursting with cash – and all of it bankrolled by the cabinetmaker to win favor with Englander and his court.

When his exploits attracted the attention of the FBI, Englander then pivoted to attempting to conceal his actions and coordinate a series of lies with the cabinetmaker. Secret texts were exchanged. Checks from Englander and a high-ranking lieutenant (referred to in the indictment as “City Staffer B”) were backdated to provide the appearance of a reimbursed transaction. Clandestine talks were staged at a fundraiser and in Englander’s car. Everything the councilmember had done would be said to have been above board. The cash and the escorts, it was agreed, would not be mentioned. The FBI, so the councilmember told the cabinetmaker, were wasting their time.

In the end, the councilmember was wrong; the cabinetmaker had been overwhelmed by the case presented against him and began working with the FBI to close the trap on Englander. The secret texts were photographed. The backdated checks were handed over. The clandestine talks were recorded. An FBI agent had even been present observing the group during their Las Vegas outing.

But Englander seems not to have been alone in his perception of his own untouchability. Supposition holds that he is only the first of the many elected officials and city employees who might yet be forced to stand trial. Indeed, as downtown Los Angeles blossomed into a glass garden of condominium towers in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the machinery of the PLUM committee turned toward wealth generation for its members and their affiliates. The encompassing authority granted to these councilmembers with respect to individual real estate deals is almost alchemical, and unsurprisingly this power has also made their friendship a high-dollar item.

Investigations have spread from PLUM throughout City Hall, touching alleged kickbacks received by José Huizar, erstwhile chair of the PLUM committee, the fundraising efforts of Deputy Mayor Ray Chan, and even to the international travel of Councilmember Curren Price’s wife, Del.

That City Council, this body, the chief legislators and administrators for the United States’s second largest city, might be the nexus of a broad scheme to defraud the public trust will not generate anything like shock: it is something that Angelenos have known since the dirt-road days. 

If anything, this is what we expect; decisions are collusive, made by scions of obscure political and industrial dynasties (Englander himself comes from a big-name family of lobbyists), whose self-assessed commitments to democracy and transparency amount to so much shadow-puppet misdirection. It is a point of a self-deprecating faith among us that politics – the politics of this pueblo, the colony, Los Angeles – is not the arena where legitimacy resides. 

Occasionally, that cynicism is rewarded when Washington comes to town and offers us residents a momentary glimpse into the undignified affairs of our civil servants. That’s how it was in November 2018, when the FBI raided the home and office of sitting councilmember José Huizar. And again, in July 2019, when the FBI raided City Hall and the headquarters of the municipally-owned Department of Water and Power. Now, again, Washington has come to town, and it seems they may not leave until our teeming lake of avaricious minnows is fished out.

But we must also be aware that, if we want to erect in Los Angeles a government that represents us, that engages us, that has more to offer us than disdainful wheedling, neither the FBI nor any other body will create it for us.

For evidence of this, look no further than the indictment against Mitch Englander. The charges, which could result in a prison term of up to 50 years, stem not from the oily buying and selling of influence he is alleged to have engaged in routinely out of his office, but rather from his blundering pass at a coverup operation. 

The FBI has been laying down snares for councilmembers perhaps as far back as 2013. But their investigation will proceed according to their goals and their timeline, neither of which is likely to be disclosed to the public any time soon. We should take it for granted that their goals and their timeline may not align whatsoever with ours.

To that point, it is not yet obvious whether the FBI will do anything to push out another councilmember implicated in the conduct of Mitch Englander: his successor, John Lee. Councilmember Lee was formerly Chief of Staff to Englander before leaving for a tour in the private sector in June of 2017. Although he has not positively identified himself as one of the anonymous participants in the narrative of the federal indictment, Lee has said that he “was in Las Vegas with Councilmember Englander.”

Despite attending this trip, where the unearned benefits of office were spread widely, Lee’s defense of himself is that he was “unaware of any illegal activities for which Englander is being charged” and that he “completely cooperated with the FBI.” Again, because Englander has been charged with the coverup and not with the flagrant abuse of his power, what Lee is saying is that he was unaware of his former boss’s attempts to frustrate the federal investigation. 

Lee is not saying that he did not know about the exchange of cash or the never-reimbursed bottle service or even the escorts (although Lee’s spokesperson did tell the Times that he was “absolutely not” the beneficiary of those services). He is saying that he did not know about Englander’s meetings, phone calls, and text messages after the fact. That might be true. It also might be fabricated. At least one staff member, the aforementioned City Staffer B, was aware of the coverup, and we know this because that individual supplied an additional backdated check with Englander’s to the cabinetmaker – in the same envelope and made out for the same amount.

Ultimately, though, that is all a bit beside the point. Lee may or may not be arrested. He might have cooperated with federal authorities or have been a small enough fish to avoid the time-consuming work of having a case built against him. But it is not credible that John Lee, as Englander’s Chief of Staff, would have been unaware of a culture such as Englander is accused of allowing to take root in his office. And Lee’s ability to remain in office should be based not on whether or not he committed federal crimes, but instead on how he has employed the trust we have granted him as a city official.

As it stands now, John Lee is perhaps days away from securing his victory in Council District 12 for the second time, after his narrow special election victory against Loraine Lundquist last year. The margin in that race, in the most conservative district in the city, is a mere 800 votes and shrinking – despite that the institutional weight of the council was levied in favor of the conservative Lee.

The rest of the councilmembers, perhaps accordingly, have been entirely mum on their colleague’s conduct. Even before the pandemic shut down the basic functioning of the city, there was not even a consideration that censure – or even informal reproach – might be oncoming.

I say perhaps accordingly because this is a question about the integrity of the City Council, its conduct, its culture and its self-control. Questions such as these have always appeared to be of singular disinterest for our councilmembers. One would imagine that such an institutional rot would be profoundly offensive to any member of the council who was not themselves a “symptom” of the problem, to use the term the U.S. Assistant Attorney applied to Englander. 

If they were not themselves symptoms, would it not offend them to think that rot taints what it touches, attaching itself in the mind of the public even to those with good intentions? And, really, is there no one on the City Council who could spare a single word for the body – for the city – that they represent?

Today, John Lee holds his former boss’s former seat on the Planning and Land Use Management committee. He is joining in consequential votes on the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that will impact Angelenos and their neighbors for years to come. He is determining how the city will administer solutions to a homelessness crisis that seems today to sit at the edge of a precipice. Every day that Lee remains on the council is an affront to the conscience of a city that, now more than ever, needs visionary leadership.

The courageous thing for Councilmember Lee to do would be to resign immediately, before additional details about his conduct as Englander’s Chief of Staff emerge. His evasiveness about his role in the federal investigation serves to strengthen what would already be a strong case that he does not view himself as accountable to the voting public. It is only by the courtesy extended to him by the FBI that these revelations were not common knowledge when Angelenos were submitting their ballots.

Assuming, however, that Lee does not elect to resign, the voters of his district should use their own lever and force their councilmember into a recall election – an election that can proceed with the information that Lee and the FBI deprived them of last time. Council District 12 deserves honesty and a break with corruption. Lee has shown no indication that he can provide either. He instead acts as though we owe him our trust and forbearance.

In the normal order of things, the City Council actually owes the public: a faithful execution of their duties, an ethical standard of conduct, competency and leadership. Having immoderately violated the terms of this relationship, now the City is flaunting its untouchability in the face of public outrage. Perhaps even now they are telling their cabinetmakers we are wasting our time.