When FBI agents in blue windbreakers strode into Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar’s office and carried out boxes of evidence early one morning in 2018, they also left behind a heavy miasma of suspicion in City Hall that elected city leaders have tried hard to address, but with little success.
Last month, the first in a series of prominent trials produced a guilty verdict, one of several courtroom dramas expected to focus on what federal authorities call a “pay-to-play” criminal enterprise in L.A. City Hall, and other civic corruption. On June 27, a jury found that developer billionaire Dae Yong “David” Lee in 2017 gave a $500,000 bribe to a middleman for then-Councilman Huizar to assure that Huizar would push back against a construction trade union group that opposed a 20-story tower Lee hoped to build. In an earlier case, George Esparza, a special aide to Huizar, pleaded guilty in 2020 to a racketeering conspiracy charge involving a developer who sought to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar’s district. Billionaire developer Wei Huang in 2014 provided $600,000 in collateral as Huizar was applying for a loan, Esparza said in his plea agreement.
Future trials are expected to focus on bigger players including Huizar, who prosecutors allege was the ringleader of a criminal operation within L.A.’s municipal government, along with top-level official Raymond Chan, who led the powerful Department of Building Safety and who prosecutors say was part of Huizar’s alleged enterprise.
A second City Hall corruption scandal is focused on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, following a 2019 FBI raid that targeted DWP and an internal scheme to rig DWP contracts and pay $2.2 million in kickbacks to private attorney Paul O. Paradis. Paradis, aided by an unnamed employee in the city attorney’s office, allegedly secretly represented both sides in a vast class action suit against DWP over its 2013 billing debacle in which overcharges were sent to tens of thousands of Angelenos.
In 2021, a third scandal arose when then-City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was charged with bribery after allegedly securing his son a paid position and scholarship at USC in return for providing USC favorable votes on contracts with the county. At the time of the alleged crime, Ridley-Thomas held a seat on the influential Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. His prosecution is not directly tied to City Hall. His trial for bribery is set for August this year.
The expanding web of corruption probes has prompted the City Council to remove two colleagues from office, Huizar and Ridley-Thomas. A third council member, Mitchell Englander, quit and was later imprisoned for obstructing an FBI investigation into his acceptance of lavish gifts in Las Vegas from a businessman who sought favors from Englander.
Other former high-ranking City Hall officials and advisors, developers, lobbyists and others have pleaded guilty, or been found guilty of bribery, fraud, obstruction and other crimes.
The prosecutions bring back memories of L.A. City Councilmember Thomas D. Shepard’s conviction for corruption in 1969, after the San Fernando Valley-based city council member went to jail for bribery. The Shepard scandal led to reforms to the city’s zoning and land-use rules.
The cluster of scandals today are unlike anything seen in modern times in Los Angeles, and it can be difficult for the public to keep up. This week, the Los Angeles Daily News is providing a guide to the major players at City Hall who have been implicated in, or convicted for, their roles in recent L.A. government scandals.
Councilman Jose Huizar case
Huizar was a Los Angeles City Councilman representing Eastside communities such as Boyle Heights and the city’s booming downtown. In 2018, FBI agents raided his City Hall office, field office and home, and Huizar was soon stripped of committee assignments. Those included his chairmanship of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, or PLUM, which has considerable power over the fate of proposed skyscrapers and other major projects that are appealed, such as by a community or labor group, or that are proposing changes to existing zoning rules. Federal authorities arrested Huizar in June 2020, and by November he’d been indicted for conspiracy and accepting $1.5 million in bribes. They allege that Huizar led a criminal “pay-to-play” operation in L.A. City Hall. His colleagues suspended him from the city council in 2020, and City Controller Ron Galperin cut off his twice-monthly $8,192 paycheck, ending his $213,833 annual salary. Huizar is scheduled for trial on Feb. 21, 2023 along with an alleged member of the ring, former Building and Safety Department general manager Raymond Chan.
Key moment: FBI agents searched Huizar’s home in 2018 and found $129,000 in cash, including stacks of $100 bills wrapped in a t-shirt, stuffed in a suit jacket pocket, and in envelopes marked with Chinese characters. Authorities had been alerted in 2015 by Las Vegas casino Palazzo that Huizar had cashed in high-priced chips at Palazzo – that Huizar hadn’t bought – after he arrived in Vegas in a Gulfstream IV with billionaire Wei Huang, according to the Los Angeles Times. The developer was seeking to build a 77-story tower in L.A. that would be the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast. Federal agents dubbed their subsequent investigation into Huizar “Operation Loyale,” similar to the James Bond film, Casino Royale. The skyscraper was never built.
Chan became interim head of the Building and Safety Department in 2013, and general manager in 2014. He was then appointed deputy mayor of economic development in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office in May 2016, and retired from city government in July 2017. Federal prosecutors allege that at least since 2013, Chan was part of a criminal pay-to-play enterprise led by then-Councilman Huizar in which city officials demanded monetary favors from developers in exchange for actions that benefited their real estate projects. Chan’s lawyer says his client didn’t break any laws and was doing his job in a bad situation. Chan is set to go to trial with Huizar on Feb. 21, 2023 for conspiracy, bribery, fraud and lying to federal agents.
Key moment: Federal prosecutors have alleged that Chan helped set up indirect bribes between business people and developers and public officials. In one instance, Chan proposed funneling money through a relative for one of Huizar’s aides, a longtime planning deputy, at first suggesting a consulting contract with the deputy’s mother,and then later through a company owned by the aide’s brother. This aide could in turn grease the wheels for a businessman who could stand to gain financially by selling cabinets to downtown high-rise buildings. LA Times reporters who ascertained the identity of the unnamed aide could not receive a confirmation from the aide’s attorney that the aide was the one referenced by prosecutors, but were told that the aide “was not involved in any wrongdoing.”
George Esparza was special assistant to City Councilman Jose Huizar, and he told federal investigators that between 2013 and 2018 he was part of a “pay-to-play” criminal ring at City Hall led by Huizar that demanded bribes from developers in exchange for favorable decisions. He said those acts included filing motions, voting on development projects, taking action, or withholding action, in the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. Esparza pleaded guilty in July 2020 to a federal conspiracy charge. His sentencing is set for Sept. 6, 2022.
Key moment: On June 17, 2022, Esparza testified that he delivered $200,000 in bribe money to Huizar, but Huizar told him to hide it. Esparza says he agreed to store the money, and the two men discussed it in a meeting – famously, in Huizar’s private bathroom in L.A. City Hall. According to prosecutors, when Huizar later on repeatedly texted Esparza to bring him the money, Esparza ignored several of Huizar’s multiple texts
Goldman was a fundraiser and longtime City Hall lobbyist who represented many developers. Previous to that he was a top staffer for city councilmembers. He pleaded guilty in 2020 to a bribery scheme in which he arranged for developers to donate $50,000 to the campaign of Jose Huizar’s wife, Richelle, who hoped to succeed her husband on the City Council. Richelle Huizar withdrew from the race after the dramatic 2018 FBI raid of her husband’s offices and their home. Goldman’s sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 3, 2022.
Key moment: According to charging documents, Goldman worked with Huizar to create a political action committee (PAC) to support local issues, whose ulterior goal was to help Huizar’s wife, Richelle, win a race for city council. Prosecutors said developers donated to the PAC to get support for projects from Jose Huizar, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. They alleged that Goldman arranged a developer donation to the PAC in return for Huizar’s promise to cut back the required affordable units in a project, thus saving the developer $14 million.
Councilman Englander case
Englander represented the 12th City Council District in the San Fernando Valley, and was imprisoned for lying to federal authorities and covering up his role in accepting gifts from a businessman seeking access at City Hall. In Oct. 2018, Englander, a member of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, left office two years early to join a private company. In March 2020, the Department of Justice charged him with obstructing their probe into his acceptance of cash, escort services, hotel rooms and meals as a councilman in 2017. He pleaded guilty in July 2020 to falsifying material facts and was sentenced to 14 months in prison. In June 2021, he entered federal prison in Tucson, then was transferred to a Long Beach re-entry facility in October 2021. Records show he was released on Feb. 3, 2022.
Key moment: Indictment documents said Englander tried to convince a businessman to lie to the FBI about Englander’s wrongdoing, but the businessman was secretly cooperating in an investigation of Englander. Investigators said Englander met with the businessman in a car and turned up its stereo, saying it would prevent devices from capturing their conversation.
L.A. Department of Water and Power case
Paul O. Paradis
Attorney Paradis was hired in 2014 to represent the city in a lawsuit against PricewaterhouseCoopers for a bungled 2013 overhaul of the Department of Water and Power’s billing system that sent out tens of thousands of bills that overcharged L.A. residents. Prosecutors say Paradis, to reduce the city’s financial exposure in the billing debacle, secretly represented both sides in a resulting class action suit — he represented the city attorney’s office, yet he also represented the lead victim on the other side, Van Nuys resident and DWP customer Antwon Jones who was unaware of Paradis’ double-dealing. PricewaterhouseCoopers dug up evidence that, in using Paradis, the city attorney’s office took part in a scheme to control the outcome of the suit. Prosecutors say Paradis colluded with an unnamed senior official in the city attorney’s office. Paradis pleaded guilty in November 2021 for accepting a $2.2 million cut of attorney fees in the Antwon Jones case — a “kickback” from another attorney who officially represented Jones. Paradis is set to be sentenced on July 19, 2022, but the hearing may be postponed.
Key moment: According to Paradis’ plea agreement, he met with DWP executive David Wright at a hotel to discuss a plan in which Wright would become Aventador’s CEO after retiring from the city, for a salary of about $1 million and a Mercedes SL 550. This dovetailed with a scheme in which Paradis ghost-wrote a report advising the DWP city commission to hire his firm, Aventador, to cope with the city’s over-billing of thousands of DWP customers.
Thomas H. Peters
Peters was head of civil litigation in the L.A. City Attorney’s Office until March 2019. He pleaded guilty on April 5, 2022 to aiding and abetting extortion by a woman — “Person A” in Department of Justice filings — who threatened to reveal collusion between the City Attorney’s Office and private attorneys who were suing the city. Prosecutors said Peters threatened to push for the firing of the city’s special outside counsel Paul Kiesel, who was working to address its DWP billing fiasco, if Kiesel didn’t pay off “Person A.” Peters’ sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 2.
Key moment: Prosecutors said that on Dec. 4, 2017, Peters met with Kiesel to discuss “Person A’s” extortion demand, and Kiesel agreed to pay $800,000 to “Person A” to prevent her release of sensitive documents. Kiesel texted Peters to inform him of the deal, and Peters texted back, “Good job,” according to prosecutors.
David F. Alexander
Alexander was DWP’s chief cyber risk officer for six months, beginning in 2019, before becoming the department’s chief information security officer. He was sentenced to four years in prison on June 7, 2022 after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a scheme to award DWP’s cyber security contract to Ardent in return for a lucrative job at Ardent — previously known as Aventador. Aventador was founded by Paul O. Paradis, who agreed to a plea deal in the same corruption case.
Key moment: Alexander asked Paradis to edit a rough draft of a DWP bid request, even though he understood Paradis had started Ardent, previously called Aventador Utility Solutions, LLC, which was seeking the DWP bid. Secretly, Paradis was cooperating with the FBI. Alexander, who wanted to be the business manager at Ardent and get “platinum-level” health insurance benefits, said of the bidding process that he created to favor Ardent, “That was me driving it.”
David H. Wright
Wright was general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from September 2016 until July 2019, leaving after the FBI raided the DWP and City Attorney’s Office. In January 2022, Wright pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in return for influencing the DWP board to award a $30 million contract to Aventador Utility Solutions LLC, owned by Paul Paradis. Wright admitted he accepted bribes from Paradis in return for the promise of a high-paid post at Aventador. Wright was sentenced to six years in prison in April 2022.
Key moment: Prosecutors said Wright and Paradis discussed in early 2017 how Paradis could get more work from DWP. The two met at a Riverside restaurant and discussed forming Aventador Utility Solutions, LLC. Prosecutors said the two agreed that Wright would nail down a lucrative no-bid contract for Paradis, and in return Wright would become CEO of Aventador for roughly $1 million a year.
Councilman Ridley-Thomas case
Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles City Councilman, was indicted last October by a federal grand jury for allegedly taking part in a bribery and fraud scheme during his previous post as an L.A. County Supervisor. According to prosecutors, the bribery and fraud were undertaken to secure his son a paid professorship at USC. He was suspended by the City Council in October of 2021 and his trial is expected in August, 2022. His vacant City Council seat was later filled by former councilman Herb Wesson. The indictment says Ridley-Thomas knew that his son, then-Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, faced sexual harassment accusations and might have to resign from the State Assembly. A federal grand jury indictment said Mark Ridley-Thomas sought a landing pad for his son in exchange for county contracts that benefitted USC. The senior Ridley-Thomas launched the alleged scheme with then-USC Dean of the School of Social Work, Marilyn Flynn, who was named in the indictment and later demoted. She resigned in September of 2018.
Key moment: According to the federal grand jury, Marilyn Flynn, as dean of the School of Social Work, worked in 2017 and 2018 to provide County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’s son a graduate scholarship and paid professorship at the School of Social Work. On October 13, 2021, the Department of Justice in a press release said the indictment found that on December 14, 2017, “About an hour after Ridley-Thomas emailed Flynn saying the high-ranking official was ‘ready to go,’ Flynn expedited the relative’s enrollment at the university, instructing that the admission should be given the ‘highest priority.”
Upcoming Trials and Sentencing Hearings
- Former Attorney Paul O. Paradis is set to be sentenced on July 19, 2022. His hearing may be postponed.
- Former L.A. city attorney head of civil litigation, Thomas H. Peters’ is scheduled for sentencing on Aug. 2, 2022.
- City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ trial is expected to be scheduled in August, 2022.
- Former L.A. city lobbyist Morrie Goldman is scheduled for his sentencing hearing Oct. 3, 2022.
- Former L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar is scheduled for trial on Feb. 21, 2023.
- Former Building and Safety Department general manager Raymond Chan is scheduled for trial Feb. 21, 2023.