Ex-Huizar staffer admits to accepting bribes for DTLA skyscraper project

Federal guilty plea is latest that points to Councilman Jose Huizar as mastermind

Jose Huizar and the proposed tower (Credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage via Getty Images. and Los Angeles Department of City Planning via The Architect's Newspaper)
Jose Huizar and the proposed tower (Credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage via Getty Images. and Los Angeles Department of City Planning via The Architect's Newspaper)

A former staffer for Councilman Jose Huizar is the latest figure to plead guilty to corruption charges in the ongoing federal investigation into the relationship between real estate developers and Los Angeles city government.

George Esparza admitted to one count of racketeering on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Esparza’s plea deal points to a billionaire developer with a pending megaproject giving Huizar over half a million dollars to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the once powerful politician.

The announcement is part of an unfolding FBI probe that within the last two months has yielded guilty pleas from former City Councilman Mitchell Englander, real estate appraiser Justin Kim, and broker and property consultant George Chiang.

Each new revelation moves closer to Huizar, who has been a central — albeit unnamed — figure in each guilty plea. Like the others, Wednesday’s announcement made no explicit mention of Huizar. But it did contain clear references to the downtown council member, including the dates he served as chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management committee.

In the most recent allegation, an unnamed billionaire Chinese developer — who served as chairman for an unidentified company — gave Huizar $600,000 in 2014 to settle the sexual harassment complaint against the councilman, the government said. At the time, Huizar was running for re-election.

In exchange, Huizar promised to shepherd through the Council a 77-story downtown skyscraper the developer was planning. The project appears to be the 77-story hotel and condo tower that Shenzhen New World Group and its chairman, Wei Huang were planning.

Shenzhen and Huang were named in an FBI warrant unsealed in January 2019 related to the federal probe into Huizar.

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The latest allegations come two weeks after former broker George Chiang agreed to a federal plea deal in which he admitted to a racketeering charge. In that case, he implicated China-based developer Shenzhen Hazens Real Estate Group in a bribery scheme that involved Huizar and a Downtown L.A. megaproject.

That case and the one the government announced Wednesday bear striking similarities.

Esparza acknowledged that he worked with Huizar between 2013 and 2018, and during that time participated in a “criminal enterprise.” The former staffer admitted to accepting $32,000 in gambling chips, flights on private jets, and spa and escort services from a real estate executive believed to be Huang.

Those admissions are nearly identical to the ones Chiang made in describing his part in the bribery scheme.

Esparza also told the FBI that he and Huizar “took over a dozen trips to casinos in Las Vegas and Australia” on the development executive’s dime.

Huizar has remained quiet amid the mounting evidence that points to his accepting cash and other compensation from developers in exchange for pushing through projects. It also points to his having masterminded a criminal enterprise between City Hall and the real estate community. A message left with his office Wednesday was not immediately returned.

Huizar has remained in office, saying he is helping constituents affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

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