Huizar cash on T-shirt

Cash found in a closet during a search of Jose Huizar's home in 2018. 

A former aide to now-suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar pleaded guilty today to a federal racketeering charge arising from a City Hall pay-to-play scheme in which real estate developers paid bribes to ensure building projects received favored treatment.

George Esparza, 33, of Boyle Heights entered his plea via video conference to a single count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute, and is cooperating in the long-running investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Sentencing is set for Feb. 8, when Esparza will face up to 20 years in federal prison. However, he is expected to receive far less time due to his cooperation.

Huizar, the central figure in the five-year probe, is accused of accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects. He was suspended from the council following his arrest in June, and faces arraignment in Los Angeles federal court on July 31.

From 2013 to 2018, Esparza worked as a special assistant to Huizar, who represented downtown and chaired the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee. After FBI agents raided the councilman's home and offices in November 2018, Huizar was removed from his committee assignments, including his role in PLUM.

Prosecutors say that Esparza and the councilman took bribes from the billionaire head of a major Chinese real estate company, who paid more than $1 million in exchange for the PLUM chairman's support for a 77-story skyscraper the company wanted to build on downtown's Figueroa Street.

Esparza told investigators that between 2014 and 2018, the developer provided him and the council member flights on private jets, gambling chips, expensive meals, prostitution/escort services and other perks during more than a dozen trips to casinos in Las Vegas, court records show.

On July 7, former City Councilman Mitch Englander pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge for obstructing an investigation into whether he took cash, escort services and other gifts from a businessman involved in major development projects in the city.

He is scheduled for sentencing on Sept. 28, but both sides have requested that the judge delay the hearing until Dec. 10.

Real estate development consultant George Chiang pleaded guilty on June 26 to the racketeering charge for playing a role in the scheme allegedly run by Huizar involving the Chinese company. His sentencing hearing is set for Feb. 22.

Also last month, former City Hall fundraiser Justin Kim pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge for his role in the scheme. Kim's sentencing hearing is also scheduled for Feb. 22.

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