By FRED SHUSTER
LOS ANGELES – Ex-Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar saw his bank balance grow after he befriended a billionaire real estate mogul, and the good fortune extended to his family members, prosecutors alleged Monday in the federal criminal trial of the China-based developer and his company — both facing charges of bribing the former elected official to help with a planned hotel project in downtown L.A.
Huizar’s estranged wife and his older brother were called to the witness stand in L.A. federal court to help the prosecution illustrate how Huizar allegedly laundered bundles of hundred-dollar bills they contend were provided by developer Wei Huang on behalf of his company, Shen Zhen New World I LLC, and a proposed 77-story mixed-use skyscraper.
Huang allegedly bribed Huizar with over $1.5 million in cash, trips on private jets and “casino chips and prostitutes” in exchange for his official support of the L.A. Grand Hotel project, which was never completed, federal prosecutors said. The defense argues that the proposed development was “universally loved” at City Hall because of the jobs, tax revenue and prestige it would bring — so there was no reason to bribe anyone.
Huang is believed to be in China and has never appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom in connection with the case — one of three separate trials arising out of a 34-count indictment against Huizar and his associates alleging wide-ranging political corruption centered around the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, commonly referred to as the PLUM Committee, which oversaw commercial and residential development projects in the city and was headed by the ex-councilman.
Huizar’s brother, Salvador, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about receiving envelopes of cash from his sibling, testified that the ex-councilman had given him cash that he deposited into his bank account and exchanged for checks written out to Huizar from his account.
The alleged laundering scheme reached as high as $10,000 in one instance in August 2014, when the then-councilman gave his brother that amount in bundled hundred-dollar bills in exchange for a check, he told the jury.
Asked by a prosecutor if he had ever questioned his brother about why they were involved in such exchanges, the longtime L.A. County employee said he had in fact brought it up several times. But his brother had allegedly replied it was “better for me not to know,” Salvador, 57, testified Monday.
The defense declined to cross-examine the witness.
Jose Huizar’s estranged wife, Richelle Rios, who was called to the witness stand next, offered a tearful account of having suspicions that her husband was involved in an extra-marital affair and then seeing her fears borne out when in August 2013 she learned that Huizar was being sued by a former aide alleging sexual harassment. The woman was seeking between $600,000 and over $1 million to settle with her ex-boss, Rios said.
Because Huizar was about to run for his third and final four-year term on the council — and news of the lawsuit could potentially torpedo that effort if it became public — Huizar and his associates were worried, she testified.
Rios — who is not facing charges — said she was called to a meeting with her husband, then-Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan and billionaire Huang — known in Huizar’s circle as “Chairman Huang.” The topic of the meeting: How Huang could “help in resolving the lawsuit,” she testified.
“They wanted to know if I was going to stay in the marriage and would I stand with (Huizar),” Rios, 53, told the jury.
She said she felt “humiliated, angry and devastated” about the situation, but agreed. Huizar was able to privately resolve the suit and was re- elected.
Around that time, Huizar began traveling with Huang to Las Vegas and elsewhere on private jets for weekend gambling trips, Rios said.
After one such trip, she testified, she found “a stack of cash” in hundreds at their home. She attempted to speak to her husband about it, but the conversation quickly turned “unpleasant,” she told jurors. Another time, she said, she found a wad of hundred-dollar bills about an inch thick hidden in a traveler’s belt in a pocket in one of Huizar’s suits.
Her husband also gave her cash in amounts between $200 and $1,000 to deposit in her bank account, she alleged. Some of her bank records were presented to the jury.
The couple, who have been married for 23 years, have four children, ages 12 to 20.
The indictment charges Huang and Shen Zhen New World with bribery in three forms: bribery of a public official; interstate and foreign travel in support of bribery; and devising and participating in a scheme to defraud the city of Los Angeles and its citizens of Huizar’s honest services.
Federal prosecutors allege that between February 2013 and November 2018, the company, acting through owner Huang, provided Huizar and his aide George Esparza with cash, casino gambling chips, flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxury hotels, expensive meals, spa services, escort services, political contributions and a favorable loan.
The company, through its attorneys, denies that anything that was provided to Huizar or Esparza was intended to influence any acts designed to benefit the L.A. Grand Hotel redevelopment project.
Huizar and Chan are scheduled to go to trial in February on dozens of charges, including racketeering.
Previously, real estate developer Dae Yong Lee and one of his companies were convicted of federal criminal charges for providing $500,000 in cash to Huizar and his special assistant in exchange for their help in resolving a labor organization’s appeal of the downtown development project and obstructing justice by falsifying financial documents.
Esparza pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge in the corruption probe at City Hall and is scheduled to be sentenced next summer.
Huizar was suspended from the council two years ago and eventually replaced after he was charged in the wide-ranging federal investigation.