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Friends with Benefits: Emails Show How Jose Huizar Used His Power to Help Developers Beat the System

12:00 PM PST on November 30, 2021

    “‘The Sellout,” our new podcast with Neon Hum, is full of examples when Jose Huizar’s constituents hoped he would go to bat for them and he didn’t. In Episode 3, we learn about an elderly tenant who had her rent jacked up after living in the same residence for decades. She met with Huizar and told him of her troubles. He said he’d do something for her but after she left, that staffer said Huizar told him to do nothing. In the first episode, we chronicle how a group of mariachis hoped that their council member could intervene on their behalf after they went on rent strike, but they say Huizar never showed up for them. 

    In this piece, we get into two examples of people Huizar did go out of his way for: his friends. 

    In 2016, a few days after Thanksgiving, hospitality industry entrepreneur Sagar Kumar reached out to his good friend Jose Huizar with a request. “I have a problem and I need your help,” Kumar wrote in an email to the council member with the subject line: Spring St. hotel project.

    Kumar was stuck in what he described as a “bureaucratic turf war” between two city agencies, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) and the Bureau of Engineers (BOE), according to emails obtained by L.A. TACO and Neon Hum through a public records request.

    According to documents filed with the city, Kumar and a group of investors were seeking to turn the 1920s building at 419 S. Spring Street, which was once home to the Los Angeles Police Department vice squad, into a 13 story 180-room modern hotel.

    “The issue is that part of our building is under the sidewalk (an area that is approx 5’ x 20’). This area was built as part of the original structure in 1927, however over the years the city has lost the associated paperwork for this small basement room,” Kumar wrote in an email to Huizar. 

    The lost paperwork was putting financing for the project at risk. Kumar needed clearance from one agency, in order for the other agency to issue a permit. He asked Huizar to intervene. “The head of the BOE is Gary Lee Moore. Could your office reach out to him and help me get passed (sic) this issue?”

    All told, Huizar collected at least $2,800 in campaign contributions from people associated with the development project, just hours after he said he would help them sort out their dilemma.  

    “Yes,” Huizar responded a day later. “Paul Habib my chief of staff will follow up with Gary lee (sic) Moore and get back to you.”

    The next day, Kumar and his wife at the time each donated $700 to Huizar’s campaign, according to campaign finance records. In an eight year time span, the couple contributed more than $5,000 to the council member, someone who at one point described Kumar as a “supporter and a friend.”

    Additionally, ethics records show that Mahendra Kumar Patel, a hotelier associated with PNK Group, the investment firm behind the project on Spring Street donated $700 to Huizar that same day. As did Hema Patel, a relative of Sagar’s and Mahendra.

    All told, Huizar collected at least $2,800 in campaign contributions from people associated with the development project, just hours after he said he would help them sort out their dilemma.

    Huizar’s staff moved quickly. The following morning Kumar received an email from Habib requesting the address of the building in question, “I will call Gary as soon as I have this info,” said the CD14 staffer. Later, in another email, Kumar asks Habib for another favor. Could he help lower a bond requirement from $1 million to $350,000? “The reason I believe this should be agreeable is because they have already said they would accept a cash CD of 350K, so why not a bond in that amount?”

    That evening, Kumar received an email from Habib. “I am calling you. Please call me back…”

    About a month after reaching out to Huizar for help, a construction permit was issued for 419 S. Spring Street. The following year, in 2017, Kumar’s group broke ground on the new development. And in 2019, the group secured a $51 million construction loan. Originally the project was supposed to open last year but now it looks like the opening date has been moved to 2023. We were unable to confirm if the bond requirement was actually reduced.

    What is clear though is Huizar was willing to help out associates with deep pockets. According to Federal prosecutors, Huizar crossed the line on more than one occasion and allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for supporting developments similar to Kumar’s project. Huizar’s lawyers have argued however that he was an “evangelist for robust development” and have sought to dismiss the majority of the 138-page indictment against the former representative.

    At one point in time, it paid to be friends with Jose Huizar. The Mexican-born, Boyle Heights-bred representative was a LAUSD board member before being elected to the city council and eventually headed the powerful Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, which has a say in all construction projects city-wide.

    He was not only powerful. He used his power to benefit his friends. 

    Take for example, Dr. Feliciano Serrano, a physician in Huntington Park, a real estate investor and a Huizar supporter, who has dabbled in politics. In 2012, Dr. Serrano contributed $50,000 to a project championed by Huizar: a 10-foot statue of Antonio Aguilar, the celebrated Mexican singer and actor born in Zacatecas. Just like Huizar, Serrano grew up in Boyle Heights and has maintained a presence in the working-class, largely Latinx neighborhood. 

    In 2013, when Huizar was supporting Wendy Greuel for mayor, Serrano was fined by the ethics commission for reportedly spending more than $150,000 to produce a commercial supporting her. Serrano had to pay $15,000 because he had not maintained proper records or filed mandatory paperwork for political ads. 

    In 2016, Serrano was looking to expand his portfolio of properties. He already owned an apartment building just South of Mariachi Plaza, what some people consider to be the heart of Boyle Heights. That year, Serrano set his sights on a vacant piece of land at 1st and Boyle, right across the street from the plaza. Serrano was already familiar with the area, and not just because he grew up down the street. At the time, Serrano owned the building adjacent to the vacant lot—where Yeya’s and Un Solo Sol are.

    The lot had been empty for several years and used to be owned by the city. Around 2016, the decision was made to sell off various city-owned lots with the hopes of creating more affordable housing in council districts like CD14, where homelessness is rampant. A request for proposals (RFP) was issued to redevelop the 14,600 square foot lot. “The most qualified projects will incorporate a strong understanding of the unique urban fabric of Boyle Heights, while at the same time maximizing community benefits and being financially feasible,” explained the Los Angeles Economic & Workforce Development Department (EWDD) in their RFP.

    Two applications ultimately came in: one from a group headed by Dr. Serrano and another from Azure Development, a development company based in Commerce, CA. The Serrano proposal called for a mixed-use building with 77 units total and at least 13 apartments designated for low-income families. While Azure proposed a mixed-use building with 36 units, 35 of which would be reserved for unhoused veterans and households that include a person with special needs.

    Huizar would stick his neck out for some friends, but it doesn’t mean it always helped them get what they wanted. 

    After the applications were reviewed and scored by a five member panel—including one community member who was handpicked by none other than Huizar—Jan Perry, a former city councilmember and then general manager of the EWDD, received a call from Huizar. Huizar reached out on behalf of Dr. Serrano and was clearly upset. By then, he had figured out that his friend’s application didn’t score as well as his competitor’s. 

    Through a records request, L.A. TACO and Neon Hum obtained a memo detailing the call. “He said hello to me, I said hello what can I do for you?” Perry wrote to another city employee in February of 2017. During the call, Huizar reportedly accused Perry of breaking the news about the winning proposal during a meeting in Boyle Heights before the results were made public. Perry, the general manager of the EWDD, strongly denied the accusations during the call. But she declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.

    The memo also revealed that Huizar reportedly sought to nominate a community member that actually worked for the EWDD at the time, to judge the proposals. In her memo, Perry described the arrangement as “completely inappropriate.”

    Perry said the call deteriorated into an argument. “He got exasperated and asked to speak to Sam Hughes,” Perry wrote. Hughes was an employee with the EWDD as well as a panelist. He reportedly offered to set up a meeting with the city attorney and Huizar to straighten things out but it’s unclear if that meeting ever happened.

    What’s clear is Serrano's dream of owning a corner lot down the street from where he grew up never came to fruition. Huizar would stick his neck out for some friends, but it doesn’t mean it always helped them get what they wanted. 

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