Former aide to Jose Huizar testifies on demands for bribes
A senior adviser to former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar gave jurors a vivid look at the pay-to-play plans allegedly being pursued by his boss, describing paper bags full of bribes and demands for concert tickets and other gifts.
George Esparza, who appeared in the first of three trials in the Huizar case on Friday, told jurors he attended two “cash donations” in 2017, collecting cash from a developer’s agent and then handing the money over to the city council in booze boxes — while he takes copious notes of his own activities.
Esparza, who worked as the councilor’s special assistant for several years, said his boss hired him to find the contact person for every real estate developer who did business before Huizar and then contact them for political donations, hotel stays, event tickets or other benefits.
At the time, Huizar headed the committee that reviews property proposals at City Hall. As a result, he had the power to keep a development project off the agenda — causing delays and driving up construction costs — if he concluded the developer had failed to respond, Esparza said.
“I was taught to be very clear about what the message was,” Esparza said. “If you don’t help the councilor with his requests, your project will stall.”
Esparza, 35, began testifying on Day 4 of the federal trial against Dae Yong Lee, a businessman accused of paying a $500,000 bribe to secure Huizar’s support for his proposed 20-story apartment tower. Lee, also known as David Lee, has pleaded not guilty to bribery, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.
Huizar, who resigned from the council two years ago, has pleaded not guilty to bribery, racketeering and other charges. His lawyers did not comment on Esparza’s comments.
Lawyers for Lee have described their client as a victim of a real estate consultant who repeatedly lied to him and FBI agents. Lee, they said, believed his $500,000 was being paid for legitimate consulting work — not bribes to officials.
Friday’s testimony offered Esparza’s first public statements since 2020, the year he pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy in the sprawling federal corruption case. Esparza admitted participating in a criminal enterprise in which he received a range of financial benefits — cash, casino chips, golf clubs, hotel stays, private jet travel — from people seeking help with high-rise development projects or other business ventures.
Esparza said Huizar kept an internal spreadsheet tracking development projects, their advisers and “what the question was”. The councilor has been harsh on its demands, saying it wants to see if the “cows are ready to give milk,” the former adviser said.
“He would say, ‘Okay, hit these guys,'” Esparza said. “‘Let’s see if they’re ready to play.'”
Esparza, who grew up in Boyle Heights, said it was his dream to work for Huizar, whom he described as a family friend. He said he was Huizar’s driver and “trusted confidante” who picked him up from his home in the morning and dropped him off late at night.
During the three-hour testimony, Esparza laid out what he described as Huizar’s effort to extort money from Lee, who needed the city council’s help with his plan for a 232-unit high-rise on Olympic Boulevard. Lee’s project received initial approval from the planning department in July 2016. Weeks later, however, a union group filed a challenge that raised the possibility that the council would decide his fate.
Justin Kim, a real estate consultant then working for Lee, asked Huizar for help removing the challenge submitted by Creed LA, a group representing construction unions and lobbying public officials to ensure real estate projects are built with union work.
Kim, a fundraiser for Huizar, is a political friend of the office, Esparza said. But the city council was also close to organized labor, making Kim’s request a “heavy lift,” the former aide said.
Esparza said he let Kim know that “the city council is not going to do this for nothing.”
Esparza said he took Huizar to a dinner with Kim to discuss the union’s challenge in September 2016, followed by a “backup services” karaoke party that Lee attended. Huizar was “definitely on a good high” on the drive home, Esparza said.
“Nothing made him happier than money and women,” he said.
In January 2017, Esparza said Huizar hired him to contact real estate experts to determine how much Lee would save if the union’s appeal were dropped. Esparza concluded that the answer was $30 million.
Esparza said Huizar then made a proposal: To vacate the appeal, Lee would have to pay $1.2 million, which would be split three ways — $500,000 for Huizar, $500,000 for Kim and $200,000 for Esparza.
Lee eventually came back with a $500,000 counteroffer, Esparza said. Huizar accepted and promised Esparza a $100,000 cut, the former adviser said.
Esparza said he picked up his first bag of cash from Kim in February 2017 and delivered $100,000 to Huizar in a Don Julio tequila box. Huizar told him to take the money home and keep it in a safe, Esparza said.
Huizar met with a lobbyist for Creed LA later that month, Esparza said. In March 2017, Creed LA dropped his appeal.
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Esparza told jurors he picked up a second paper bag of money that same month and delivered it to Huizar in a Johnnie Walker Blue Label box. Huizar again told him to keep the money at home, Esparza said.
Esparza said he took numerous notes on the proposals and counter-proposals and also took photos of the stacks of $100 bills he picked up. The former aide said he did so because he was nervous that if the FBI found out about it, Huizar would pin the plan on him.
“Once I knew my boss, I knew I was going to be the fall type,” he said.
Esparza has not yet been convicted in the case. Neither does Kim, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in 2020.
Ariel Neuman, an attorney for Lee, will have the opportunity to cross-examine Esparza Tuesday. During the trial, he accused prosecutors of giving Kim a “sweetheart deal” that would allow him to avoid charges for a range of crimes. In court filings, Lee’s attorneys also targeted Esparza’s credibility.
“Esparza is a convicted felon who admitted in his plea agreement that he lied to the FBI on at least five separate counts,” they wrote in a recent filing.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-18/former-jose-huizar-aide-describes-demands-for-cash-and-donations Former aide to Jose Huizar testifies on demands for bribes