Testimony implicates ex-L.A. Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan in developer's $600K sex harassment settlement bribe to Jose Huizar
Huizar's former aide George Esparza testified this week that Chan also played a key role in arranging Huizar's weekends in Las Vegas with developer Wei Huang.
Ex-Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar’s longtime aide testified this week that now-retired Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan suggested a billionaire real estate developer pay Huizar’s 2014 sexual harassment settlement, then helped broker the deal as part of a years-long City Hall racketeering and bribery scheme.
Chan was so involved in the secret arrangement between Huizar and Wei Huang that he apparently fretted over who in City Hall knew of it when he learned a few years later that the FBI was asking questions about Huizar and Huang’s relationship, George Esparza said on the witness stand. Chan’s relationship with Huizar strengthened because of the $600,000 arrangement with Huang, which Esparza said the billionaire referred to as the “most expensive pussy he’s ever paid for” during a Las Vegas rendezvous shortly after the settlement.
Huizar made clear Chan was part of the elite “friends of the office,” Esparza said, and “that we needed to make sure Ray was taken care of.”
Esparza’s testimony in U.S. District Judge John Walter’s courtroom also placed Chan at the center of Vegas trips that prosecutors say Huang used to buy Huizar’s support for his proposed 77-story L.A. Grand Hotel: Though Chan never joined the parties in Sin City, he introduced Huang and Huizar and encouraged them to gamble together in Vegas.
Chan also took an interest in the quality of first weekend trip in March 2013 during Esparza’s first day back at City Hall, Esparza said. When Esparza affirmed Huang had taken care of them, Chan replied, “Good, good,” Esparza said.
The testimony was backed by Kevin Keller, a longtime city planning department employee and special adviser to Mayor Karen Bass who testified Tuesday about meeting with Huizar and other regarding the L.A. Grand Hotel. He wanted to meet with project developers immediately, but Chan, who was his boss at the time, directed him not to, saying Huizar’s office likely would take the lead. Keller said that was unusual.
“Normally we’d be urged to meet right away, as soon as possible,” Keller said.
A longtime city employee, Chan retired in 2017 as the deputy mayor for economic development, but prosecutors say he continued his alleged role in Huizar’s massive racketeering conspiracy by accepting a lucrative consulting job with a company operated by an associate of another billionaire developer who bribed Huizar. The 66-year-old is on trial for 12 felonies, including conspiracy to commit racketeering and bribery. He’s not currently in custody, but he faces decades in prison if convicted.
Esparza took a plea deal in May 2020 that calls for prosecutors to recommend no more than 87 months in prison. Huang is a fugitive believed to be living in China, while Huizar accepted a deal last month in which prosecutors agreed to recommend he serve no more than 13 years when he’s sentenced next month. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander has already served a 14-month sentence for an obstruction conviction related to the scandal.
Huizar’s departure from the highly anticipated trial before Judge Walter shortened its expected length by several weeks, but testimony still has focused heavily on the specifics of Huizar’s corrupt arrangements with Huang and Fuer Yuan, another wealthy developer hoping to redevelop the Luxe City Center Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. That includes detailed accounts by Esparza of the Vegas trips that didn’t include Chan but were done with his blessing, Esparza said.
Some jurors appeared amused by the lavish details of the Vegas outings, Huizar’s petty greed and Esparza’s willful yet naive embrace of it all. Huizar’s relationship with Huang produced the most salacious testimony, as Esparza indicated the billionaire developer shares Huizar’s hedonistic nature. When Huang commented about the $600,000 settlement being “most expensive pussy he’s ever paid for,” the men were toasting, high-fiving and laughing uproariously, and the arrangement became “an ongoing joke,” Esparza said.
Huang and Huizar’s partying also proved most publicly incriminating for Huizar in the years it was taking place: Esparza described how Huizar handed his identification to the Palazzo casino employee at a black jack table, then was told by security he’d been identified as an elected official and needed to sign a document confirming his casino chips were his and not a gift.
Huizar refused to do so, but surveillance footage of Huizar together with Huang at the Palazzo eventually ended up in the hands of the FBI agents who uncovered the massive scandal. Esparza also described how the incident prompted a series of changes by Huizar that did not include halting his criminal activity, only letting it “cool off.”
Chan knew of Huizar’s close call with Palazzo security and encouraged the Vegas cool down, Esparza said, but, prior to that exposure, he’d never encouraged Huizar not to travel to Vegas.
Huizar avoided Vegas for several months, Esparza said, then ditched the Palazzo for the Cosmopolitan as he became increasingly questioning of which casinos and private jets might ask to see his identification. He’d order Esparza to scrutinize the background of any newcomer, according to testimony, and he’d sometimes leave the private jet to Esparza and Huang’s crew and take a commercial Southwest Airlines flight instead. He’d also enlist Esparza to cash chips for him at the casino, meeting him in the bathroom to collect and always counting the cash make sure Esparza didn’t steal any.
Huizar also tasked his young aide with smuggling stolen towels and bathrobes from their Vegas hotels back home to Los Angeles.
“He did not want anyone to know he was taking the towels, so I took that duty,” Esparza testified.
A search warrant affidavit unsealed in December 2021 first publicized the Palazzo incident and Huizar’s other Vegas trips, and Esparza has testified about much of the tabloid-like details in other trials. But the testimony in Chan’s trial was more detailed, and it directly connected Chan to Huizar’s conspiracy. It also was uninterrupted: Chan’s lawyer, Harland Braun, didn’t lodge a single objection in the approximately six hours Esparza testified over Friday, Monday and Tuesday.
Esparza recalled his first trip to Vegas at Huang’s expense in 2013. His family celebrated his mother’s birthday, and he sang “Happy Birthday” to her before a black Escalade arrived at Huizar’s home to take the two to the Million Dollar Air private airport in Burbank. It was Esparza’s first time on a private jet, and “it was an definitely an experience, to say the least,” he said.
A stewardess handed him a hot towel and he enjoyed champaign and other drinks before landing in Vegas, where a black Rolls Royce took he and Huizar to the Wynn Hotel. Their five-bedroom, two-story villa had a private spa and pool, and they enjoyed an elaborate Chinese dinner with Huang before Huang offered Huizar first pick of a line of 10 or 11 prostitutes, Esparza said.
Huang’s associate told them, “Don’t pay them, they’ve already been paid,” but Esparza said he tipped the woman he was with, anyway, using chips given to him by Haung, because she asked.
The testimony highlighted Esparza’s own close relationship with Ricky Zheng, a young assistant to Huang who conspired with Esparza regarding Huizar and Huang’s plans for the L.A. Grand Hotel downtown. Esparza said Huizar wanted him to identify and buddy up to the chief assistant to developers and potential bribe givers, and Zheng served that role with Huang.
Close in age, Esparza and Zheng partied together in Vegas, and when the FBI first contacted Esparza in 2017, he told three people: his grandfather — “because that’s grandpa,” he testified — Huizar and Zheng. He and Zheng also did the grunt work on Huang’s secret $600,000 payment for Huizar’s sexual harassment settlement. The deal left Huizar permanently indebted to Huang, while other bribe targets such as Yuan had more tenuous relationships based on what they’d done for Huizar recently. Again, Esparza played a pivotal role in managing the situation, and he worked with another young man who, like Zheng, was a righthand man to power: George Chiang, who owned the company that employed Chan after he retired from the city.
Meanwhile, Esparza’s close relationship with Huizar gave him a front row set to the councilman’s unraveling, including his emotional reaction to former staffer Francine Godoy’s sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Esparza said during one discussion with Huizar about the lawsuit, “he did collapse on the floor” and "was very upset.” Esparza said it was difficult to see his longtime family friend suffering, so he tried to comfort him. “I just let him know that I had his back and anything he needed me to do, I’d do it,” Esparza said.
As Esparza said early in his testimony, he broke that promise in December 2017 amid the burgeoning FBI investigation, quitting his longtime job and secretly recording Huizar asking him in his office bathroom about $200,000 in cash bribes from Huang that Esparza had been storing. Esparza stored the money in his bedroom at his grandparents’ home before passing it off to Zheng, then ignored increasingly hostile texts from Huizar in 2018 that culminated in Huizar’s surprise visit with his grandfather.
The councilman, who resigned his 15-year council seat in 2020, never got the money: Esparza testified Friday it was seized by the FBI.
When Huizar appeared to be going off the rails amid an affair with a second staff member in 2017, Chiang worked with Esparza to manage Feuer’s needs regarding the Luxe Hotel project. Jurors saw text messages in which they discussed how to manage the affairs of their older and more publicly influential bosses. In one, Esparza told Chiang, “I’m thinking we just throw fucking girls at him you know,” referring to Huizar.
Pressed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har to explain, Esparza said, he meant they should have Huizar “party with some women.”
“The councilmember was always happy when he did that,” Esparza said.
Chiang is a key witness against Chan: His direct testimony is estimated at eight hours. (He took a plea deal in May 2020 that calls for prosecutors to recommend no more than 70 months in prison.)
Other witnesses include Huizar’s estranged wife, Richelle Rios, who’s expected to take the stand Thursday morning. Huizar planned for her to run for his vacated City Council seat in 2020 in what Esparza testified was “definitely a power move on his part.”
Stay tuned for more coverage and check out my previous two articles:
Feb. 25: 'This is scary, boss': Jurors hear ex-Los Angeles Councilman Huizar's covert bathroom meeting
Feb. 22: 'Your Honor! This is proper!' Harland Braun gives his opening statement in ex-L.A. deputy mayor Raymond Chan's federal corruption trial
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