A Los Angeles real estate appraiser who reached a plea agreement on federal bribery charges last week spent years deeply involved in local politics and policy decisions, including a stint on the city’s planning commission board.
Justin Jangwoo Kim, who accepted the plea deal after federal investigators uncovered evidence that he shuttled a $500,000 bribe between an unidentified developer and unidentified city council member, was part of the nine-member City Planning Commission from the spring of 2011 until the summer of 2013 when Eric Garcetti took over as mayor and appointed a new nine-member commission.
Kim’s long ties with city government are another wrinkle in a vast federal probe into the relations between L.A. city hall and the real estate business. His track record also sheds light on the normally obscure world of real estate appraisers, who demanded earlier this week to be recognized as an essential business amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Garcetti’s predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Kim to the commission, which is the first step in the city approval process for major building and real estate projects. The appointment was made despite a city ethics commission report filed at the time that Kim’s work at real estate appraisal businesses TMG Realty Advisors and In Due Time Inc. could raise “conflicts of interest.”
Kim, who is 52, first received his appraiser’s license in 1992 by the California Bureau of Real Estate Appraisers, and has followed state policy guidelines of having it renewed every two years. Per state records, Kim has no professional disciplinary history.
His professional start came when appraisers were in the crosshairs following the late 80s savings and loan scandals. “The S&L failures were partly blamed on the appraisers,” said Craig Gilbert, a Los Angeles and Orange county appraiser for four decades. “Appraisers were given higher fees and more work if they inflated values.”
The savings & loan debacle led to industry regulation, but Gilbert said it is a profession still susceptible to pay-to-play. “I have attorneys who tell me, ‘When we need a higher number we call this guy, but when we don’t we call you,’” the appraiser said.
While Kim has not held an official position in city government in the past seven years, he has been a prolific political fundraiser, donating thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Garcetti, City Attorney – and declared mayoral candidate – Mike Feuer, former City Council President Herb Wesson, former City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee Chairman Jose Huizar, current City Council President Nury Martinez, current PLUM Chairman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and current city council members Mitch O’Farrell, Gil Cedillo, and David Ryu among others.
All told, Kim has given $28,500 to candidates for L.A. city office, according to city records, while In Due Time doing business as TMG Realty has provided $13,500 total.
Kim also served as board member for the nonprofit Korean American Coalition of Los Angeles, whose current board includes prominent L.A. business leaders.
Eunice Song, executive director of the Koreatown-based group, noted Kim has not been on the board since she took over the nonprofit in 2018, and that his position was unpaid.
Kim has served as president of TMG Realty since 1995. A company representative reached at the firm’s Hancock Park office declined to comment or provide personal contact information for Kim. The real estate appraiser is not in custody, and faces a March 31 federal court summons, which remains on the docket despite coronavirus-related cutbacks in court appearances.
Messages left with the planning department on Kim’s record on the commission, and his influence on city real estate decisions were routed to the mayor’s office, and messages there were not returned.
The bribe that led to Kim’s plea deal was apparently intended so that the unidentified city council member, who was part of the city’s PLUM Committee, would look favorably upon an unidentified project that was under community and legal scrutiny. Per Kim’s plea, an organized labor group was challenging the project on grounds that it ran afoul of California’s Environmental Quality Act.
Kim and the unidentified City Council member met several times in 2016 and 2017, according to the plea, to arrange the exact cost the developer would have to fork over so the elected official would work to overcome the project’s opposition.
As part of his agreement, Kim will cooperate with federal investigators who are doing a wide-ranging probe that has resulted in a raid of the office of Huizar, an indictment against developer Arman Gabay, and earlier Friday a plea deal reached with former City Council member Mitchell Englander. TMG Realty Advisors donated $700 to an Englander reelection campaign, records show.