The FBI arrested a former Los Angeles City Councilmember Monday morning as federal agents conduct a probe into possible bribes real estate developers gave to city officials. The probe is wide-ranging and the charges handed down Monday are “unprecedented” in their brazenness, according to one government watchdog.
Mitchell Englander surrendered to FBI agents after federal prosecutors indicted him on obstructing an investigation regarding a Los Angeles businessperson offering Englander more than $30,000 in “cash, female escort services, hotel rooms, and expensive meals” during a junket to Las Vegas, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Englander had served on the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee, or PLUM, the powerful five-person body that approves all new city developments that require zoning variances.
The unidentified businessperson, “operated companies in Los Angeles pertaining to major developments and sought to increase his business opportunities in the city.”
Englander pled not guilty to seven counts of obstruction of justice in federal arraignment court Monday, and the onetime civil servant was set free after his spouse appeared in court to post a $50,000 unsecured bond. Englander faces a trial setting conference Friday morning in front of Judge John Walter.
Englander appeared in a defendant bullpen wearing a black fleece sweatshirt and sporting close cropped hair. He mostly spoke through his lawyer, Janet Levine of Kendall Brill & Kelly.
During a 15-minute court session, arraignment court Judge Patrick Walsh instructed Englander to surrender a passport he ordered one week prior when it arrives in the mail, not cross state lines, and also not relocate seven guns that Englander owns. “With respect to the firearms,” Levine assured the judge, “the government knows where they are.”
Walsh also repeatedly instructed Englander to not have contact with witnesses for the prosecution.
A federal indictment handed down in October, and unsealed Monday paints a picture of a decadent Las Vegas junket in which a businessperson lavished Englander with more than $30,000 worth of booze, escorts, casino chips, and hotel accommodations.
The unknown businessperson also allegedly later gave $5,000 to Englander in a Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa bathroom in exchange for Englander introducing the businessperson to an unidentified property developer.
The businessperson was interviewed by the FBI in 2017, per the indictment, and began cooperating with federal agents. What ensued was a series of texts, calls and lunch meetings in which Englander told the businessperson to lie to federal agents when, unbeknownst to the council member, the businessperson was working with the FBI.
For example, the indictment states that Englander warned the businessperson not to discuss the escort, who he repeatedly referred to as the “massage lady.”
Englander is also charged with directly lying to the FBI in interviews regarding his relations with the businessperson.
“This is all pretty brazen,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “I don’t recall a Los Angeles City Council member being indicted for the accusation they directly received gifts and illicit services from a developer.”
Feng noted the charges precede a city law that passed late last year banning developers from contributing directly to City Council members.
Englander did not immediately appear outside the downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse Monday, though his lawyer Levine later materialized and handed out a statement to assembled press that reads, “Mitch is proud of the work he has done to service his community as both a volunteer reserve police officer and a public official,” and, “despite this setback,” he “looks forward to continuing his lifelong contributions to the community that has given him so much.”
Englander served in City Council from 2011 to 2018, representing a district largely comprised of the San Fernando Valley.
He resigned in 2018, a month after FBI agents raided the offices of City Council colleague Jose Huizar.
At the time, little connection was made to Englander’s resignation and the FBI probe. Englander announced he had taken a communications position at the Oak View Group, a sports and entertainment company in Westwood. According to LinkedIn, Englander left Oak View Group last month to become president of E-Venture, which his LinkedIn page calls a “government relations group.”
A search warrant related to the Huizar investigation became public in January 2019, and revealed federal agents were conducting a wide-ranging investigations into relations between developers and city brass. Much of the focus centered around China-headquartered companies including Shenzhen Hazens.
The warrant mentioned eight city officials including current councilmember Curren Price, but did not mention Englander.
Huizar remains on City Council, and has not been charged with a crime.
The Englander indictment does not mention Huizar or any other public officials. But it does generally describe the dynamic between city officials and developers, and suggest the potential for corruption.
“Within the city, large-scale development projects required a series of applications and approvals prior to, during, and after construction,” the indictment reads. “Each part of the city approval process required actions by public officials,” including, “entitlements, variances, general plan amendments, subsidies, incentives, public benefits, scheduling agendas for the various committees, and overall approvals.”