'This is scary, boss': Jurors hear ex-Los Angeles Councilman Huizar's covert bathroom meeting
George Esparza, Huizar's longtime assistant, took the stand Friday as a prosecution witness in the federal corruption trial of Raymond Chan, an ex-L.A. deputy mayor.
A longtime assistant to ex-Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar testified Friday of his former boss’ persistent efforts to collect $200,000 in cash bribes the young man had been storing for the corrupt powerbroker, beginning with a secretly recorded meeting in Huizar’s private City Hall bathroom.
George Esparza said Huizar ushered him into the bathroom after Esparza told him he was quitting his longtime assistant job amid a budding FBI investigation, broaching a subject for which the assistant was well prepared.
“I just knew he was going to bring up the cash,” Esparza said, telling Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har that he covertly recorded the meeting with his cell phone because he “wanted to protect myself.”
“He looked at me and said, ‘Let’s talk in the bathroom,’” Esparza testified. “That’s when I knew he’d bring up the cash.”
“Had you ever met with Jose Huizar in his private bathroom before?” Har asked.
“No. That was the first time,” Esparza answered.
The recording was played Friday for the jury in the federal corruption trial of Raymond Chan, a retired Los Angeles deputy mayor for economic development. It includes Esparza telling Huizar, “This is scary, boss,” and Huizar agreeing they should wait a few months before touching the money.
Jurors also saw increasingly hostile text messages that Huizar sent Esparza through 2018 regarding the $200,000, which was eventually seized by the FBI but at one point resided in two liquor boxes — Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Don Julio — stored in Esparza’s bedroom at his grandparents’ home. Esparza said Huizar’s collection efforts culminated with the 15-year City Council veteran stopping by the home when Esparza wasn’t there and telling Esparza’s grandfather that Esparza owed him money.
“I was really pissed off because he was trying to intimidate my grandfather,” Esparza said, adding that Huizar had never before visited his home in the eight years he’d worked for him. Jurors saw a still image from Esparza’s grandparent’s home surveillance video system that showed Huizar at the front door.
Esparza will return to the stand Monday. He’s a key witness against Chan, who faces potentially decades in prison for 12 felonies connected to a years-long organized bribery scheme prosecutors say he helped Huizar orchestrate with real estate developers.
Esparza testified Friday that Chan was a key connection between Huizar and billionaire Chinese developers Wei Haung and Fuer Yuan, who had major projects in Huizar’s downtown Los Angeles district. Chan served as a Chinese-to-English translator to help facilitate bribes such as lavish gambling trips to Las Vegas. Esparza said Chan often referred to Huizar as “the king of downtown” and “big boss of downtown.”
As he described Friday, Esparza was there every step of the way: His mother and Huizar went to elementary school together, and he interned for the councilman before becoming a full-time staffer in 2009 at the age of 22. He grew to be Huizar’s “closest confidant,” testifying that he “would always be with the councilmember every single meeting” and that he worked to identify developers Huizar could refer to as a “fat cow” or a “big whale,” as in, someone willing to bribe him. He said Huizar’s wants would “depend on what his mood was that day” and could include concert and sports tickets, golf clubs, ties or “it could also be t-shirts.”
One developer willing to play along was Dae Yong Lee, also known as David Lee, who Esparza testified paid Huizar $200,000 in two $100,000 cash payments funneled through Esparza and Justin Kim, a real estate appraiser and Huizar fundraiser.
Kim pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in March 2020; prosecutors said they’ll recommend no more than 57 months in prison when he’s sentenced June 12. A jury convicted Lee in June 2022, and he’s scheduled to be sentenced May 5. Esparza, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in June 2020 to racketeering conspiracy and is out of jail on bond. Prosecutors agreed to recommend an 87-month prison sentence; sentencing is scheduled for June 5.
He’s testified in previous trials, including about the $200,000, but his testimony in Chan’s trial is more detailed and is expected to include further revelations about the corruption he indicated Friday was a way of life for Huizar. Huizar had long been scheduled to go to trial with Chan, but he took a plea deal last month that calls for prosecutors to recommend he spend no more than 13 years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for April 3.
Huizar’s aboutface followed his brother, Salvador Huizar, pleading guilty last October to a false statements charge in a deal that called for him to cooperate fully with prosecutors, including through trial testimony. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend he serve no more than six months in prison; sentencing is scheduled for May 15.
Like the others’ sentences, the former councilman’s sentence ultimately will be decided by U.S. District Judge John Walter, who also presided over trial for Lee and his company, 940 Hill LLC, as well as the trial of Haung’s company, Shen Zhen New World I LLC.
Huizar is not expected to testify in Chan’s trial, but his estranged wife, Richelle Rios, is listed as a prosecution witness.
Chan’s lawyer, Harland Braun, is arguing Chan is the target of a malicious and sloppy investigation. Judge Walter prohibited him from alleging racism or discrimination because of Chan’s Chinese heritage, but he still alluded to the argument, including telling the jury early in his opening statement on Feb. 21: “Chinese this. Chinese that. … He does speak a foreign language. Still not a crime to speak a foreign language.”
Esparza testified Friday that he and Chan had a “big brother, little brother relationship” when they worked together at City Hall. He described how Chan arranged for Huang and Huizar to meet over an extravagant traditional Chinese dinner that Esparza also attended. Esparza recalled seemingly endless servings of food coupled with copious amounts of wine that Haung also gifted in bottles to Huizar and Chan.
Asked by Har if he got a bottle, too, Esparza answered, “Uh, no,” and several jurors laughed loudly.
It highlighted the slightly sheepish tone Esparza brought to his testimony as he looked back on the eight years he spent with one of Los Angeles’ top powerbrokers while he was still in his 20s, going from an annual salary of $32,000 to $102,000.
He touched on his naivety at the time early in testimony when describing how Huizar asked if he’d store Lee’s $200,000 cash bribes for him. He said his initial takeaway was that Huizar trusted him with his money, but he said he now realizes Huizar wanted him to keep the money “just in case the FBI came into our lives so he wouldn’t be caught with it.”
In the covert bathroom recording, Huizar tells Esparza he has “a lot of expenses now” because of his wife’s political campaign, and “I’m gonna need money that’s mine.” That when’s Esparza said, “This is scary, boss.”
In the courtroom, Har asked Esparza, “What was scary to you?”
“The FBI,” Esparza answered.
The men first agreed to postpone the $200,000 handover to April 2018, then again delayed it to October 2018.. By that time, Esparza had been speaking with the FBI, and he ignored Huizar’s numerous text messages. The final text shown for the jury, dated Oct. 22, 2018, was lengthy and included, “Sounds like you don’t want to meet up and face up to your commitment to meet on October 1.”
Esparza was on the stand for about 70 minutes Friday. Har was transitioning into questions about a Las Vegas trip Haung and Huizar took together that Esparza helped arrange when Judge Walter said, “Alright, let’s save the Vegas trips for Monday morning.”
Prosecutors estimate Esparza’s direct exam will last another approximately five hours, then Braun’s cross is estimated at two hours. Other prosecution witnesses include Bud Ovrom, former deputy mayor for economic development and former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. (Chan held both those jobs.)
Kevin Keller, another former deputy mayor for economic development, also is to testify. Keller currently is Mayor Karen Bass’ transition deputy mayor of economic development.
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