Former Aide to L.A. City Councilmember Agrees to Plead Guilty to RICO Charge Stemming from ‘Pay-to-Play’ Corruption Scheme
LOS ANGELES – The former special assistant to a member of the Los Angeles City Council has agreed to plead guilty to a federal racketeering charge stemming from a “pay-to-play” bribery scheme where real estate developers and their proxies provided over $1 million in financial benefits, including cash, to the councilmember and others to ensure certain real estate projects received favored treatment.
George Esparza, 33, of Boyle Heights, agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute.
Esparza was charged with the racketeering offense in a criminal information filed today in United States District Court. In addition to the charging document, federal prosecutors filed a plea agreement in which Esparza committed to entering a guilty plea and agreed to continue cooperating in the ongoing investigation into political corruption in the City of Los Angeles.
In the court documents filed today, Esparza admitted to participating in a criminal enterprise called the Council District A Enterprise (CD-A Enterprise), which was led by his one-time boss, who was chair of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee and is described as “Councilmember A.”
“Members and associates of the CD-A Enterprise conspired with one another to facilitate bribery schemes that would provide Councilmember A and other City officials financial benefits and keep Councilmember A in power and maintain the CD-A Enterprise’s political stronghold in the City,” according to the plea agreement.
Esparza admitted that he was a member of the criminal enterprise from early 2013 through November 2018, which is when Esparza began cooperating with federal authorities and after the FBI executed multiple search warrants related to the investigation. According to the plea agreement, during the time of the conspiracy, Esparza and Councilmember A accepted financial benefits and agreed to perform official acts, including:
- filing motions and voting on projects, including matters before the City Council;
- taking, or not taking, action on the PLUM Committee to influence the approval process and project costs;
- negotiating with and exerting pressure on labor unions and other city entities to resolve issues on projects;
- exerting pressure on developers with projects pending before the city; and
- taking official action to enhance the professional reputation and marketability of businesspersons in Los Angeles.
While a member of the criminal enterprise, Esparza participated in several schemes, he admitted in his plea agreement. One scheme centered on a massive downtown project described as “Project E,” which was being developed by a Chinese company run by a Chinese billionaire called “Chairman E” in court papers.
“Chairman E provided defendant Esparza and Councilmember A financial benefits in over a dozen trips to casinos in Las Vegas and Australia,” according to the plea agreement. “Between June 2014 and January 2018, defendant Esparza personally accepted at least approximately $32,000 in gambling chips, plus flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxurious hotels, expensive meals and alcohol, spa services, event tickets, and escort services from Chairman E.”
The plea agreement also states that, at the urging of another city official described as “Individual 1,” Chairman E agreed to facilitate a $600,000 payment to help Councilmember A confidentially resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Councilmember A during a 2014 re-election campaign.
In exchange for the $600,000 from Chairman E, Councilmember A routinely assisted with Chairman E’s requests. For example, Councilmember A introduced and secured the passage of a resolution before the City Council that recognized Chairman E’s “achievements and contributions to the economy of CD-A,” the plea agreement states.
Furthermore, Chairman E provided bribes to Esparza and Councilmember A because Councilmember A was poised to significantly benefit plans to redevelop Property E and “transform it into a 77-story skyscraper, making it the tallest building west of the Mississippi River,” according to the plea agreement. This included meeting with Chairman E and his team to discuss tax rebates and other incentives from the City, as well as Councilmember A providing assistance in hiring a consultant to work on Project E. At one point, Esparza told another member of the CD-A staff that Chairman E had “leverage” over Councilmember A because of the financial benefits Chairman E provided. According to court documents, “Chairman E provided over $1 million in bribes to Councilmember A so that Councilmember A would benefit Chairman E’s plans to redevelop his property in CD-A.”
A second bribery scheme described in the plea agreement centers on Project C and a $500,000 cash bribe funded by Developer C to secure Councilmember A’s help in resolving a labor organization’s appeal, which halted the approval process of the real estate development. This bribe, which was facilitated by political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim, was designed to obtain Councilmember A’s influence “to pressure Labor Organization A to withdraw, abandon, or otherwise lose its appeal opposing Project C,” which would allow the project to move forward and would save Developer C $30 million in development costs, the plea agreement states. Esparza admitted that he played a role in negotiating the bribe, as well as having discussions with representatives of Labor Organization A.
In March, Kim agreed to plead guilty to a bribery charge for his role in this scheme. Esparza admitted that he and Kim kept some of the money paid in 2017 as kickbacks for facilitating the bribe, and that he hid $200,000 in cash for Councilmember A. In mid-2017, Esparza asked an employee of Chairman E to conceal the $200,000, as well as other illicit cash, because Esparza feared law enforcement would search his house and discover the money.
In another scheme related to the criminal enterprise, Esparza admitted accepting money from “Businessman A,” who asked Esparza and Councilmember A to use their official positions to make introductions to developers and advocate that they use Businessperson A’s business. For approximately the first six months of 2017, Esparza accepted monthly cash payments of approximately $8,000 to $10,000, with Businessperson A sometimes paying Esparza in the bathroom during meetings in restaurants, according to the plea agreement. Esparza also went on a Businessman A-funded trip to Las Vegas in June 2017 – a trip also attended by then-City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who also has agreed to plead guilty in this investigation related to lying to the FBI about cash and other benefits received from Businessperson A on that trip.
In his plea agreement, Esparza also admitted to lying to special agents with the FBI during interviews in June and July of 2017 by falsely stating, among other things, that he had no knowledge of any city official helping on a project in exchange for money, gifts or campaign contributions.
The court has not scheduled a date for Esparza to enter his guilty plea. Once he does formally enter the guilty plea, he will face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The case against Esparza is part of an ongoing public corruption investigation being conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The case against Esparza is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Mack E. Jenkins, Chief of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section, and Assistant United States Attorney Veronica Dragalin of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section.
Esparza is the fourth person to agree to plead guilty to a federal felony related to this ongoing investigation. Kim is scheduled to enter his guilty plea on June 3, and Englander is set to plead guilty on June 4. Real estate development consultant George Chiang earlier this month agreed to plead guilty to a RICO charge for participating in the pay-to-play scheme and is set to enter his guilty plea on June 26.
Any member of the public who has information related to this or any other public corruption matter in the City of Los Angeles is encouraged to send information to the FBI’s email tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org or to contact the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office at (310) 477-6565.