LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — A former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar Wednesday agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge related to the federal corruption probe into an alleged pay-to-play scheme at city hall.
George Esparza, 33, agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute and has been cooperating in the long-running investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Officials said Esparza began cooperating with federal investigators in November 2018, when agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Huizar’s offices and home. Huizar has not been arrested or charged with any crime, though there have been calls for the embattled councilman to limit his activities as a member of the council.
According to prosecutors, the alleged scheme involved real estate developers and associates who paid more than $1 million in financial benefits, including cash, to a council member and others to expedite the approval process for specific real estate projects.
In his plea agreement, Esparza admitted to participating in a criminal enterprise led by his one-time boss, described as a former chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and named in court records as Council Member A.
According to the plea agreement, Esparza and the council member accepted money and agreed to perform official acts such as: 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 certain business figures in Los Angeles.
Esparza also admitted to lying to special agents with the FBI during interviews in the summer 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.
It was not immediately known if Esparza, who currently works as chief of staff for Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, had obtained legal representation. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
The charge against Esparza comes nearly two weeks after federal prosecutors entered into a plea agreement with real estate development consultant George Chiang, who admitted his role in a bribery scheme, with the goal of advancing large-scale development projects.
In March, real estate appraiser and political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim agreed to plead guilty to a single count of federal program bribery for facilitating a $500,000 cash payment to an unnamed council member.
Also in March, former Councilman Mitch Englander agreed in March to plead guilty to engaging in a scheme to deceive the FBI, related to his cover up of cash payments and other gifts offered by a Los Angeles businessperson.
Englander, Kim and Chiang are expected to formally enter guilty pleas in federal court in June before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.
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