FBI: Huizar refused to ease casino’s suspicions of corruption
BY FRED SHUSTER
Jose Huizar was allegedly escorted out of a Las Vegas casino while he was a Los Angeles city councilman after he was identified by employees as an elected official and “politically exposed person” and refused to certify the source of his gambling money, according to documents filed by federal prosecutors Monday.
The new papers were lodged in Los Angeles federal court in opposition to Huizar’s bid to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a search warrant. Prosecutors quote from a 36-page affidavit sworn to by an FBI special agent that was used to support the warrant.
Huizar, the central figure in a six-year probe of suspected corruption in City Hall politics, and his associates were allegedly involved in a $1.5 million pay-to-play scheme in which real estate developers were shaken down for cash and campaign donations in exchange for help getting building projects through the city’s approval process. He is expected to face trial in May.
The affidavit details alleged evidence from a variety of sources — including several witnesses, hotel and casino records, flight records — establishing that between 2014 and 2016, Huizar made at least eight gambling trips to Las Vegas with a billionaire Chinese developer with business in his council district.
Huizar’s federal public defense attorney, Charles Snyder, did not immediately respond to a request from City News Service for comment.
Huizar, who represented downtown L.A. and was the chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, has denied all allegations. A hearing to discuss developments in the case is set for Jan. 31.
The affidavit states that on the ex-city councilman’s fifth trip to the Palazzo casino with co-defendant Wei Huang, president of a global development company headquartered in China, casino staff allegedly detected “suspicious activity between the two and provided evidence of that suspicious activity to the FBI.”
The alleged evidence included surveillance footage of Huizar gambling with Huang and two other co-defendants in a “high-end gambling salon reserved for high rollers” and sharing Huang’s casino chips, according to the affidavit.
Additionally, gaming records show that Huizar played and ultimately cashed in tens of thousands of dollars in chips that he did not purchase, and hotel records indicate that the developer gave Huizar private jet transportation and luxury accommodations, prosecutors allege.
The newly filed documents include references to the alleged observations of Palazzo employees, some of whom described their interactions with Huizar when they confronted him and asked him to sign documents intended to confirm that, as an elected official and “politically exposed person,” he had an “independent source of wealth sufficient to demonstrate that he was gambling with his own money.”
Huizar refused to sign the documents, giving the impression that he was trying to “stay under the radar,” and was escorted out of the gaming area for failing to provide information “to allay the casino’s suspicions that he was engaging in corrupt activity on its premises,” prosecutors allege.
In addition to the five Palazzo trips — which the affidavit notes ended after the hotel’s compliance staffers identified Huizar and asked him to certify the source of his gambling money — prosecutors allege that Huizar accompanied Huang on three subsequent gambling trips to different Las Vegas casinos.
It is also alleged that Huizar used his mother’s and brother’s bank accounts to launder bribe payments that he received from Huang and another person, according to the government’s papers.
Attorneys for Huizar contend that more than three years of personal emails held by the government as evidence in the bribery case against the ex- councilman should be suppressed because the seizure violated his constitutional rights.
Defense lawyers say that in July 2016, as part of the early days of the bribery investigation, the government applied for and received the warrant to search 39 months of Huizar’s personal emails, but the affidavit supporting the warrant application “lacked probable cause” and provided no basis for obtaining the emails.
Huizar’s lawyers previously argued that the bribery case against the ex-councilman should be tossed because the alleged conduct does not violate laws cited in the 41-count federal racketeering indictment.
In the indictment, prosecutors confuse favors as bribes, deem that First Amendment-protected contributions are crimes, and treat “virtually everything that Huizar did as an `official act’ no matter how informal or disconnected from government power,” according to an earlier defense motion.
The federal probe ensnared lobbyists, developers such as Huang, and political operatives, including former city official Raymond Chan. Formerly the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, Chan was, more recently, the city’s deputy mayor of economic development.
Defense attorneys contend that Huizar’s only crime was acting as an “evangelist for robust development” whose mission as representative of Council District 14 was to bring hotels, apartments, jobs, tourism, and entertainment to the city’s downtown, according to court filings.
The defense argues that Huizar and Chan saw it as their responsibility to bring development and businesses to downtown Los Angeles. Partly as a result of their work, “the region became a livable and attractive destination for locals and tourists alike. During this period, nearly everyone in Los Angeles talked or heard about how much downtown had improved.”
Co-defendants George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant, real estate development consultant George Chiang, and fundraiser Justin Kim each pleaded guilty last year to federal charges.