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DTLA Developer’s Guilty Verdict May Mean Worse Days Ahead For Jose Huizar

Courtesy of Jose Huizar

In Smoke Screen: The Sellout, L.A. TACO and Neon Hum’s lauded 9-part investigative podcast, journalist and host Mariah Castañeda charted the meteoric ascent and shameful fall of purportedly crooked City Councilman José Huizar, who is suspected of turning his position into a racket, taking six-figure payoffs from developers of luxury buildings at the peak of downtown development, at the same time that gentrification was ravaging his constituents and former neighbors.

Yesterday, one of Huizar’s corrupt benefactors, the first defendant in a total of three federal trials centered on his criminal malfeasance, was declared guilty by a jury in Downtown Los Angeles. DTLA developer and real estate investor Dae Yong Lee aka David Lee, and his company, 940 Hill LLC, were both found culpable on charges of bribery, obstructing a government investigation, and honest services fraud. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison upon sentencing, while this initial guilty verdict provides some possible foreshadowing for Huizar’s own upcoming trial, which is set to take place in 2023.

According to Courthouse News, Lee wanted to replace a one-story building with a $120 million+, 20-story mixed-use apartment-and-retail development. But he had one major obstacle in the form of an appeal from the Coalition of Responsible Equitable Economic Development (CREED LA), an organization that works to get union labor hired for large construction projects.

The government’s case claims that Huizar and his accomplices allegedly wanted a $1.2 million bribe to get involved in resolving the appeal and supporting Lee’s project, using intermediaries within Huizar’s political network to negotiate the payment.

One of these men, Huizar's fundraiser, and political fixer Justin Jangwoo Kim began cooperating with the federal investigation, leading the way to recorded conversations in which Kim and Lee discuss being “played” for a $500,000 bribe by Huizar. Kim admitted to picking up cash from Lee and giving it to the other middleman, Huizar aide George Esparza.

Esparza testified that he was a part of two money drops comprising these bribes. Both Kim and Esparza, who have each plead guilty and are awaiting their own sentencing, also admit they kept some of the payoff themselves.

Meanwhile, CREED LA’s executive director admitted during the trial that the organization’s own legal challenge to Kim’s project was most likely due to be dropped anyway, given its frequent losses with such appeals. The statement raises suspicions that Huizar may not have taken the organization’s appeal at face value and was simply cashing in on the developer’s fear.

Lee, who claims he didn’t know the payment was a bribe to Huizar and that Kim lied to him, says, through his lawyer, that he will appeal the jury’s verdict.

Still, Monday’s decision bodes badly for Huizar's defense, demonstrating that the federal investigation has legs, effective evidence, and convincing cooperating witnesses able of convincing a jury of the widespread corruption schemes Huizar’s office stands accused of.

The next trial examining the tarnished City Councilman’s alleged corruption will take place in October when a jury will consider a bribery case involving Chinese developer Shen Zhen New World, in which its chairman alleges spending over $800,000 on Vegas gambling trips for Huizar and his crew, and $259,000 in chips for him to gamble with.

Huizar will then face his own federal trial in February 2023, by which time even more cards potentially condemning his supposed misdeeds will have been laid out on the Feds' table.

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