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Did Huizar’s Council Cronies Really Not See Corruption Hiding in Plain Sight?

GUEST WORDS-The most glaring but possibly least surprising fact that arose as I read the 120-page federal criminal complaint against City Councilman Jose Huizar was this:

If the councilman threw his support behind a development project in his district, his PLUM committee colleagues and the City Council would rubber stamp it, zoning restrictions and other matters of public interest be damned. 

If that hadn’t been true, his alleged schemes to shake down developers wouldn’t have worked. There wouldn’t have been the bundles of cash stashed in his closet, the free trips to Las Vegas complete with stacks of chips and call girls, the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to support his wife’s campaign to succeed him when he was termed out of office. 

Lest anyone think that’s an exaggeration, or a slander on his committee and council colleagues, consider what is identified in the complaint as “Project M,” a 35-story mixed use development in the downtown Arts District that was widely opposed by people living and working in that area. 

According to the complaint, in 2016 a person identified as “Lobbyist B” (named by the Los Angeles Times as Morrie Goldman) and the developer identified as “Executive M” met with Huizar to discuss the fact that the project couldn’t go forward because the planning department wouldn’t approve a general plan Amendment that would allow added height and density. At that meeting, Huizar agreed to either file a city council motion to initiate the amendment or put pressure on the planning department to approve. 

For reasons the complaint doesn’t detail, the planning department gave in to Huizar’s pressure and approved the amendment. In exchange for the councilman’s help on that and any future issue involving the project, the complaint says, the developer donated $50,000 to a Political Action Committee (PAC) supporting Huizar’s wife’s city council election campaign. 

The project was approved by the City Planning Commission (CPC) in 2018, but with a requirement that a significant percentage of the housing units be reserved for low-income renters. 

Two days later, according to the complaint, the developer contributed another $25,000 to the PAC, although he was apparently unhappy with the CPC requirement. 

Another problem arose when a labor union appealed the approval to the Huizar’s PLUM committee.  According to the complaint, Huizar told Executive M that if he were to vote against the union the developer would have to make it worthwhile. In a later meeting, the complaint says, the developer agreed to donate $50,000 to the PAC, over and above the $75,000 already donated. 

Executive M also agreed to provide opposition research on two of Huizar’s female staffers who had filed sexual harassment complaints, according to the complaint. 

The project was scheduled for a PLUM committee hearing on October 16, 2018. FBI investigators intercepted a text message exchange between the lobbyist -- believed to be Goldman -- and Executive M in which the developer asks, “Anyone else on plum (sic) we should connect with?” The lobbyist’s reply? “I was thinking about it but I really don’t want to call attention to it. I would rather let Jose power play it through.” 

The committee, following Huizar’s lead, voted to deny the union appeal. It also scrapped the CPC’s low-income housing requirement in favor of a much less stringent one requested by the developer. The complaint alleges that this saved the developer $14 million. A week later, the full city council gave its unanimous approval. 

This image of the committee members as cardboard cutouts taking up seats at the table is illustrated throughout the criminal complaint. For example, a phone call intercepted by the FBI has a person identified only as “Individual 1,” but who is clearly Raymond Chan, former head of the city’s Department of Building and Safety and ex-deputy mayor for economic development, talking to a Chinese developer about projects in Huizar’s district. 

“If you are in the PLUM committee, but Huizar does not put you on the agenda, then, your project will not see the light of day for a long time, because it’s up to the chairman whether the agenda is your project or not. . .his power is so great that that even if Department of City Planning approves, and the City Planning Commission makes all the changes, such as changing or reducing the number of your units, etcetera, PLUM, which stands for Planning and Land Use Management, the committee chaired by Jose can still completely reverse everything.” 

Another section of the complaint detailing Huizar’s alleged crimes says, “. . .Huizar often targeted developers for contributions shortly before he was slated to vote on their projects and at times delayed projects by removing them from the PLUM committee agenda while commitments were solicited and negotiated. Many of those developers were willing to pledge their commitment for $50,000 or $100,000 because Huizar’s vote was a high-value commodity that they very much desired.  Moreover, they feared not contributing as requested would anger Huizar who would then take adverse action (including inaction) on their projects.” 

I have no personal knowledge concerning the allegations against Huizar. However, I attended many PLUM committee meetings he chaired, almost always when sign ordinance revisions or projects with digital signage and other entitlements were on the agenda.  At the beginning, the committee was three members—Huizar, Mitchell Englander, and Gilbert Cedillo, but was later expanded to five to include, at different times, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Curren Price, Bob Blumenfield, John Lee, and Felipe Fuentes. 

A typical meeting on the sign ordinance went like this:  A city staffer -- most often from the Planning Department, but also at times from the City Attorney’s office and other departments -- would make a report. Huizar would then call for public comment, which would include persons like myself who advocated for stricter billboard regulations, and lobbyists for the sign industry and representatives of labor unions and other groups it had recruited to its cause of more billboards, especially of the digital variety. 

There was seldom more than desultory discussion by committee members before Huizar would make an observation about a point raised by the pro-billboard element, never about anything said by other members of the public. Then he would read a statement of the committee’s action from a sheet of paper. 

To say that those of us on the community side of the meeting room aisle were perplexed the first time we saw this would be an understatement. The committee’s action, usually to direct the planning department or other city agency to return with recommendations on certain sign ordinance provisions, was obviously written up in advance of the meeting. There was no discussion or formal vote. Huizar would simply read the statement, say something to the effect that “this shall be action of the committee” and adjourn the meeting. 

How did what is arguably the City Council’s most powerful committee become the chairman’s fiefdom, its members a group of serfs obediently following their master’s will? 

Englander is no longer on the committee, having recently pleaded guilty to federal charges relating to his own corruption schemes. Felipe Fuentes quit the City Council to become a Sacramento lobbyist.  The longest serving members are the current chairman, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Cedillo.  Along with Blumenfield and Price, they were sitting at the table while Huizar oiled the way for projects by developers who favored him with piles of cash and other considerations. 

Only John Lee wasn’t on the committee when these alleged crimes were committed, and he is tainted by the fact that he was Englander’s chief of staff while the latter was succumbing to the siren of money and Las Vegas trips with all the attractions that implies. 

All those members were put there by former Council President Herb Wesson, now running for County Supervisor. While none have been implicated in Huizar’s scheme, the odor of his and Englander’s corruption wafts from the PLUM committee meeting room and current Council President Nury Martinez should immediately replace them with new faces. 

And what of the council that rubber stamped that Arts District project and others that Huizar leveraged for his personal gain? All of them, PLUM committee members included, either had no inkling of signs of corruption hiding in plain sight, or they averted their eyes. Either possibility calls into question their fitness for public office. 

But just as Huizar wouldn’t have been able to advance what the federal complaint calls a “criminal enterprise” without the blindness or willful ignorance of his colleagues, he would have had a harder time without the “Rule of 15” that means the full council almost always votes on a development project the same way as the member from that district. 

Thus Huizar, with absolute control of the PLUM committee, could expect any project he favored to sail through full council approval. He didn’t have to fear one of the 15 seeing something fishy about a project and raising objections, because that simply wasn’t done. He didn’t have to fear Herb Wesson, or Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Mayor Eric Garcetti or any elected official raising inconvenient questions because they were interested in the big projects built in the downtown part of Huizar’s district. Never mind that something wasn’t quite right about the way they were getting approved. 

Of course, somebody tipped off the FBI, who did ask inconvenient questions and searched offices and phone records and uncovered a scandal with tentacles that could reach deeper and deeper into City Hall. And the criminal complaint just made public practically shouts, “How could those in charge of those city hall offices have stood by or otherwise let this happen?” 

Now is the time to demand reform. To sign a petition to this effect, go to   https://www.change.org/demandreformLA.

 

(Dennis Hathaway is the former president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight (now the Coalition for a Scenic Los Angeles).  He is currently working on a book about the Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice and the long battle between its tenants and landlord over redevelopment of the property. Dennis is an occasional CityWatch contributor.)Photo: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.