The LA Podcast

Three Suits to the Wind

by Scott Frazier
June 12, 2020

Preface: What Makes Sense

On May 27th, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California released a plea agreement signed by George Esparza, a high-ranking former assistant to outgoing 14th district councilmember José Huizar. Esparza is only the latest among the members of what appears to be a vast bribery ring in City Hall who has agreed to plead guilty to charges including racketeering, bribery, and attempting to conceal criminal activity from federal investigators.

Over the course of the past three months, the still in-progress investigation led by the attorneys of the Central District’s Public Corruption Section has netted plea agreements from disgraced former District 12 Councilmember Mitch Englander and real estate consultants George Chiang and Justin Kim. The plea deals have thrust to the fore questions about the conduct and integrity of some of the city’s most prominent public figures.

At the same time, these early legal victories have bolstered the FBI’s claims of a years-long and much wider conspiracy thriving in various council offices, city departments, and even among the Mayor’s chief deputies: a network of public servants working to wring millions of dollars in personal gains out of Los Angeles’s tortuous land development regulations. To date, the government’s public findings involve at least a dozen developers and perhaps several times as many hotel and residential towers.

The allegations lend a queasy color to City Hall’s major policy push of the 2010s: the development of expensive high-rise housing and hotels in Hollywood and downtown so as to fulfill the economic agenda of a mayor fixated on elevating L.A.’s position in the pecking order of global tourism. That legacy was criticized from many quarters while it was still evolving. Protest campaigns arose associated with the city’s Black anticapitalist movement and a resurgent socialist left. Politicians drew public ire for focusing on fluffing the pillows of visitors while the meat cleaver of gentrification set about excising entire low-income communities from the city joint by joint.

The post-Great Recession vision of Los Angeles promulgated by elected officials was one of a business-friendly, but service-poor city. The operative logic of public decision-making was bound up more in preparing the way for an Olympic bid in the semi-distant future than it was in remediating the painful economic stagnation that had worked its way into the bones of the city’s working-class majority.

It is, then, only the more nightmarish that it should turn out like this: that a political agenda which had been felt to be so broadly dismissive of Angelenos was also coincident in the extreme with the most self-serving interests of multiple councilmembers. The credibility of City Council is marred to a degree that the members of the body do not seem to have begun to consider. But, even if they will not, residents contemplate it because we must.

The corruption is so saturating that the investigators apparently chanced upon Mitch Englander engaging in felony bribery without even meaning to. The ground is so poisoned that Englander’s successor, Councilmember John Lee, less than a year in his current office, also appears to be implicated in a criminal coverup. The thoroughness with which the members of City Council appear to have either bought into or, at best, accepted the perversion of their posts breaches in its magnitude all conceivable contracts between electorate and government.

It is this very magnitude that has made it so difficult from the outside to interrogate the facts of the case so far. Helpfully, though, Esparza’s signed admission connects a number of different threads in the FBI investigation into City Hall and allows us to draw out the details of previously released filings.

For example, we know now that it was Esparza who manned the cash bribe scheme described in the plea agreement of Justin Kim. We know that it was through surveillance of Esparza’s conversation with Huizar that the FBI happened to find out about Englander’s trip to Las Vegas. We know that it was Esparza who was responsible for connecting Huizar to new developers and when the time came converting Huizar’s official authority into kickbacks.

New information in the Huizar case, once so scarce for so long, now arrives by way of flood. The beginnings of this scandal, consequently, at times threaten to be overwhelmed completely in memory, appearing smaller not only because of the passage of time but also because of the sheer volume of what has followed. And for all the information we have access to, so much is still obscured.

But those beginnings, incidentally, give us the largest part of records we have related to Huizar’s below-board conduct in office. These come not from the little that the USAO has made public thus far, but rather from the series of civil complaints that have been filed against the councilmember. The fragments of publicly available depositions, discovery, and other documents in these cases number in the hundreds or thousands of pages.

Despite this, for me at least, the meaning of these civil cases has remained elusive – and never more so than after the release of Esparza’s plea agreement. Just as it has allowed some things to slide neatly into place, the definite application of Esparza’s name to certain dates in this timeline has created some disjunctions too. Motives that seemed clear, or at least plausible, before – former employees looking for a payoff, validly disgruntled victims of targeted harassment seeking justice, even a coordinated attack by allies of a political rival – now seem insufficient to match the scope of what is known.

What will follow, then, in this series is my attempt to lay out the tensions as I see them and hopefully to resolve some of them too.