By FRED SHUSTER
LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan coordinated a $600,000 loan from a Chinese billionaire doing business with the city to then-Councilman José Huizar to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that threatened the Huizar’s reelection campaign, an FBI agent testified Wednesday in Chan’s federal criminal trial.
Chan is facing a dozen criminal counts, including racketeering conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and lying to federal agents for his alleged role in a complex pay-to-play scheme that prosecutors say soaked developers for millions of dollars in exchange for getting their building projects approved at City Hall.
In the trial’s first day of testimony, FBI Special Agent Andrew Civetti told jurors that Chan was the “go-between” between Huizar and the billionaire, Wei Huang, who was hoping to build a 77-story skyscraper in Huizar’s council district. The loan arrangement resulted in Huizar securing a bank loan and paying the sexual harassment settlement.
As dozens of text and email exchanges between Chan, Huang and Huizar were shown to jurors, Civetti portrayed Chan — then the top executive at the city’s Department of Building and Safety — as a powerful player in the alleged conspiracy.
At the same time, the emails suggest Chan acted as Huizar’s fawning and subservient No. 1 fan, at various points calling him “eloquent,” “unbelievable” and “our savior.”
Chan, 66, of Monterey Park, is accused of being a member of what prosecutors dubbed the Council District 14 enterprise, a conspiracy which operated as a pay-to-play scheme in which Huizar — assisted by others — unlawfully used his office to give favorable treatment to real estate developers who financed and facilitated bribes and other illicit benefits.
Huizar pleaded guilty last month in Los Angeles federal court to felony charges for using his powerful position at City Hall to enrich himself and his associates, and for cheating on his taxes. He faces multiple years behind bars at sentencing on April 3.
A deputy mayor who oversaw economic development for ex-Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2016 and 2017, Chan is charged with allegedly arranging indirect bribe payments to city officials by lining up employment contracts for the officials’ relatives.
“It’s a great story,” Chan’s attorney, Harland Braun, said sarcastically in his opening statement Tuesday, telling the jury there is not “a speck of evidence” that his client acted improperly.
The defense attorney promised that Chan would take the stand and refute the government’s allegations.
In her opening, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan S. Har summarized the alleged scheme as designed to “get money, keep power and avoid the feds.”
“This is a public official who secretly abused his position to set himself up for a payday,” the federal prosecutor told the downtown jury.
Chan worked for the city for almost three dozen years, serving at one point as the top executive overseeing the Department of Building and Safety, which reviews building plans and inspects construction projects.
Court papers show the government plans to call more than a dozen witnesses in its case, including Huizar’s wife, Richelle Rios, and three others — George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant; lobbyist Morrie Goldman; and real estate development consultant George Chiang — who have entered into plea agreements in which they agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
In her statement to the jury, Har alleged that after Chan retired from the city, he began working with Chiang doing consulting and lobbying on behalf of developers. In 2017, Har said, Chan established a company and opened a bank account for the purpose of, among other things, receiving payments from Chiang and making illegal payments to himself.
The defendant “acted as a go-between” for Huizar and various wealthy developers, the prosecutor said, calling Huizar and Chan “the perfect combination. They needed one another for the pay-to-play scheme to work.”
Before Huizar signed his plea deal, he and Chan were scheduled to go on trial together.
Two previous trials arising out of the 2020 indictment against Huizar, Chan and various associates have ended in convictions.
In the first Huizar-related trial, a federal jury found Bel Air real estate developer David Lee and 940 Hill LLC, a Lee-controlled company, guilty of felony charges, including fraud and bribery, for providing $500,000 in cash to Huizar and his special assistant in exchange for their help resolving a labor organization’s appeal of their downtown development project.
In the second trial, real estate development company Shen Zhen New World I LLC was found guilty of paying Huizar $1 million in bribes to obtain city approval to build a 77-story skyscraper.
During the Shen Zhen trial, Huizar’s 83-year-old mother, his older brother and Rios testified for the prosecution.
Federal prosecutors have thus far convicted nine defendants and received over $3 million in criminal penalties to resolve the federal probe into two other major real estate development companies, as a result of operation “Casino Loyale,” the investigation into City Hall corruption conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Huizar’s older brother, Salvador Huizar, 57, of Boyle Heights, pleaded guilty last year to lying to FBI agents about receiving envelopes of cash from his brother. He is set to be sentenced in May.