Councilmember Englander Corruption Indictment Could Derail Councilmember Lee

Mitch Englander (upper right, red tie) and John Lee (lower left) together on March 2, 2020, the day before Election Day. Photo via Lee Instagram
Mitch Englander (upper right, red tie) and John Lee (lower left) together on March 2, 2020, the day before Election Day. Photo via Lee Instagram

Yesterday, former L.A. City Councilmember Mitch Englander was indicted on corruption charges, centering on a 2017 trip to Las Vegas where Englander is alleged to have received cash, expensive meals and drinks, and the services of a female escort. If found guilty of obstructing the investigation into the Vegas spree, Englander could face up to 50 years in prison.

Though no one but Englander has been charged with any crimes so far, the scandal threatens other councilmembers and other city staffers, including Englander’s successor John Lee. Lee served as Englander’s Chief of Staff during the time of the alleged crimes. During his short tenure on the City Council, Lee has been anti-bike and anti-bus. Though Lee is not directly named, he clearly appears throughout the indictment as “City Staffer B.” Lee admits to having accompanied Englander on the 2017 Las Vegas trip, but denies any wrongdoing.

Englander is accused of:

  • repeatedly making false statements to the FBI and federal prosecutors – in relation to having received cash and other gifts (including the services of a female escort) from a businessperson, during and after a 2017 Las Vegas trip paid for by the businessperson
  • repeated witness tampering in attempting to pursuade the businessperson “to provide false and misleading information, and omit relevant information from the FBI and federal prosecutors conducting the public corruption investigation”

Yesterday, Englander plead not guilty yesterday to the seven count indictment.

Both Englander and Lee have campaigned as law and order candidates, touting endorsements by police unions and Englander’s status as a member of the LAPD reserves. Lee’s campaign materials describe him as “The Only Choice of Law Enforcement.” Despite these claims, they are no strangers to legal controversies. A former staffer accused both Englander and Lee and Englander of sexual harassment and gender discimination. Both denied the charges and, in 2014, the city settled out of court with a $75,000 pay-out.

The current indictment alleges “pay-to-play schemes” Englander engaged in largely from his seat on the City Council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee. Also serving on the PLUM Committee at the time were Councilmembers José Huizar and Curren Price.

Huizar is known to be the target of a 2+year old FBI corruption probe that, prior to yesterday, had not yielded any charges. Some speculate that Huizar (like the businessperson involved in the Englander Vegas scandal) turned and is cooperating with the FBI.

According to the L.A. Times, documents in the Huizar case point to the investigation of then-Huizar staffers Shawn Kuk and George Esparza, Councilmember Price, Councilmember Herb Wesson’s Chief of Staff Deron Williams, Mayor Eric Garcetti-appointed Board of Public Works Commissioner Joel Jacinto, and former Garcetti Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Ray Chan. Just today, the Times speculated whether “the Huizar raid was just the tip of the iceberg, and that the feds were actually conducting a broader investigation into an array of potential crimes, including money laundering, bribery and extortion.” Time will tell.

Englander was not known to be a target of that investigation, but is alleged to be tied to it via Huizar staffer Esparza, who the FBI alleges accompanied Englander and Lee on the Las Vegas trip.

There has been a lot of reporting on the Englander corruption charges already. See the DOJ’s official statement. Listen to L.A. Podcast for an informative overview (which directly informed the timeline below.) Read the full 27-page indictment legal document at LAist. Streetsblog will summarize the allegations, then speculate where the emerging scandal may lead.

The indictment names only Englander, but uses generic names for the other individuals involved. Though they are not named, it is not difficult to tell who various city players are – based on their descriptions in the indictment.

  • Former L.A. City Councilmember Mitch Englander, who was elected in 2011 and resigned unexpectedly in late 2018.
  • City Councilmember A is thought to be José Huizar, the target of a FBI corruption probe that became widely known in late 2018.
  • City Staffer A, “City Councilperson A’s special assistant from June 2013 to approximately January 2018,” is thought to be George Esparza, former “special assistant” to Councilmember Jose Huizar. In January 2018, Esparza left Huizar’s employ to serve as Chief of Staff to State Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo.
  • City Staffer B, a “high-ranking staff member for Englander until June 2017,” is thought to be current City Councilmember John Lee who served as Englander’s Chief of Staff from 2011 through June 2017.
  • Businessperson A “operated businesses in the city relating to major development projects.” Businessperson A was “cooperating” with the FBI and may have carried a wire tap to gather evidence. The identity of Businessperson A is not clear at this time.

Below is the timeline of the alleged corruption charges against Englander. All items are according to allegations in the indictment – except where otherwise linked:

2016 – Businessperson A met Englander, and “sought to increase his access to business opportunities in the City.”

February 15, 2017 – FBI files warrants to obtain emails from Jose Huizar, George Esparza, and Ricky Zheng (a developer representative.) It appears likely that the FBI similarly sought access to tap the phones of these parties.

March 15, 2017 – FBI warrant approved.

June 1, 2017 – Englander, with City Staffers A and B, and others, traveled to Las Vegas. Englander allegedly accepted various gifts from Businessperson A, including $10,000 cash, VIP hotel amenities, $1000 in casino chips (some of which were returned after gambling), dinner, drinks, $34,000 bottle service ($10,000 of which was paid by a developer in attendance, the rest from Businessperson A), and female escorts.

Yesterday, via Twitter, Lee stated, “I was in Las Vegas with Councilmember Englander in June 2017, and I did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip. I was unaware of any illegal activities for which Councilmember Englander is being charged.”

June 3 2017 – City Staffer B texted Businessperson A thanking him for the “enjoyable Las Vegas trip.” (The text did not state anything about Staffer B or Englander reimbursing trip expenses.)

Beginning June 5, 2017 – On information from a “judically authorized phone call” from Businesssperson A, the FBI begins investigations into whether Businessperson A gave illegal gifts to Englander, Councilmember A, and/or Staffers A and B. The judical authorization appears to have been authorized as part of the Huizar investigation.

June 9, 2017Englander bids farewell to his Chief of Staff John Lee.

June 10-12 2017 – Englander attends a Palm Springs golf tournament, where he allegedly accepted $5,000 in cash from Businessperson A.

July 11 and 13, 2017 – FBI contacts Staffer B seeking a voluntary interview regarding the investigation.

July 19, 2017 – FBI interviewed Businessperson A (with counsel present), who “began cooperating” with the investigation.

August 16, 2017 – FBI interviewed Staffer B (with counsel present.)

September 1, 2017 – FBI contacted Englander to seek a voluntary interview.

September 14, 2017 – Businessperson A received two $442 checks from Englander and Staffer B as reimbursement for “Vegas expenses.” The checks were backdated to August 4, 2017.

October 4, 2017 – Englander met with Businessperson A and is alleged to have discussed the Vegas trip, and Englander’s upcoming interview with the FBI, and the two coordinated testimonies regarding receiving casino chips.

October 19, 2017 – Englander was interviewed by the FBI where he is alleged to have “falsely stated on multiple occasions” that he had not told Businessperson A about his upcoming FBI interview.

December 2017 – Esparza/Staffer A leaves Huizar’s office to become Carrillo’s Chief of Staff, stating to the L.A. Times that he was “profoundly uncomfortable with some of Huizar’s practices and conduct… So I got out before I became collateral damage.”

January and February 2018 – Via a confidential messaging app “Confide” and voicemail, Englander was in contact with Businessperson A, and arranged to meet and discuss FBI matters at a February 6 fundraiser.

February 6 2018 – Englander is alleged to have instructed Businessperson A how to testify to the FBI, stating “you and I have never had a conversation” and telling him to just respond to FBI questions “I don’t know.” Specifically regarding the Vegas escort “massage lady” Englander allegedly stated “Don’t say it… Don’t mention… No. No. Don’t mention it.”

February 7, 2018 – In the morning, Englander allegedly contacted Businessperson A via WhatsApp to confirm that Businessperson A would not share escort information with the FBI. Later in the day, Englander was again interviewed by the FBI where he is alleged to have made several false statements about the Vegas trip and his communications with Businessperson A.

February 12, 2018 – Englander again met with Businessperson A, this time in Englander’s car. Englander “turned on the stereo at a very loud volume in an effort to obstruct possible listening devices.” Englander drove in circles and allegedly “repeatedly instructed Businessperson A to lie to the FBI” regarding their meetings and the Vegas trip.

April 2018 – Englander filed his form 700 declaring $1,202 worth of gifts for 2017, failing to report money/hotel/escorts alledged to have been given to him by Businessperson A.

October 11, 2018 – Englander abruptly announced his retirement from City Council.

November 7, 2018FBI raids Huizar’s home and offices.

November 20, 2018 – Englander met with Businessperson A, again allegedly instructing him to lie about their interactions.

December 31, 2018 – On his last day in office, Englander again interviewed by FBI, allegedly again made false statements.

August 13, 2019 – In a special election to replace Englander’s vacant seat, Lee defeats Loraine Lundquist. The final vote tally showed Lee receiving 19,426 votes (51.55%) to Lundquists’ 18,259 (48.45%). The candidates’ positions, especially on transportation and homelessness, contrast starkly.

Now skip ahead to last week, in the March 3, 2020, election Lee and Lundquist face off again. Though there are still quite a few votes to count, as of March 6 Lee is ahead with 24,227 votes (51.98%) to Lundquist’s 22,379 (48.02%). The L.A. Times decried the race’s “political chicanery” which saw Democrat Lundquist falsely accused of being both a socialist extremist and anti-gay.

Lundquist has responded to the Englander indictment, stating that it is “startling that the Grand Jury indictment occurred on Jan 16, a month and a half before the election, but is just being revealed now. The voters of the 12th District deserved to have this critical information before the election.” and further:

Now that John Lee has admitted to participating in the Vegas incident in question, is he specifically admitting to being Staffer B named in the indictment?

If John Lee is, in fact, Staffer B, the indictment says he participated in the coverup by backdating his “reimbursement” check after being interviewed by the FBI. If that is the case, he should resign immediately.

If the Englander scandal takes down Lee (and assuming Lee’s current lead in votes holds) Lundquist (if she chooses to run) could face a fourth and fifth Council District 12 election, all in under two years.

There is a lot to decry in the Englander scandal.

The city’s insular planning approvals process gives all councilmembers tremendous power over development, leading to the illegal “pay-to-play” schemes that Englander is alleged to have undertaken. The pay-to-play schemes go beyond just the PLUM Committee and others known to be under investigation for illegal sub-rosa influence peddling. Out in the open are the legal above board campaign contributions – much of it from developers seeking influence – that frankly taints pretty much the entire council.

The duplicity of John Lee is particularly egregious here. The indictment states that the FBI met with Lee soon after his 2017 Las Vegas trip, so he clearly had to have known that Englander resigned under the impending doom of the federal investigation. The FBI alleges that both Englander and Lee (“City Staffer B”) backdated checks to cover up their Vegas exploits. It is astonishingly bald of Lee – when in mid-scandal – to run for the office that his scandalized boss just vacated. Did Lee expect the dark clouds to somehow just blow over? Did he believe that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?

And Lee received numerous endorsements from around the City Council horseshoe. In 2020, Lee was endorsed by Councilmembers Joe Buscaino, Nury Martinez, Mitch O’Farrell, Monica Rodriguez, and Herb Wesson – all Democrats reaching across the aisle to endorse a longtime Republican. In 2019, Lee was endorsed by Rodriguez and Buscaino.

Council President Nury Martinez endorsed John Lee in the 2020 election. Image via John Lee Instagram
Council President Nury Martinez is one of five councilmembers who endorsed John Lee in last week’s election. Image via John Lee Instagram

Did anyone on the council have a hint of the scandal afoot, of the ongoing PLUM pay-to-play schemes? It’s difficult to imagine that none of these electeds had any knowledge of it. And yet they circled the wagons. What were these Democrats, some very progressive, thinking? Did they think that the federal investigation that forced Englander’s resignation would somehow leave Lee unscathed? At press time, none of the have called for Lee’s resignation for his role in the Englander scandal.

Some people are calling for Lee’s resignation. A trickle of social media posts are urging #JohnLeeResign. Bike the Vote L.A. tweeted that “John Lee must resign.” BtV is urging followers to sign an online petition and to email Council President Nury Martinez to strip John Lee of all committee assignments.

Time will tell if the wide-ranging FBI  investigations will yield additional indictments. In the Englander indictment, there appears to be sufficient allegations to bring at least some charges against City Staffers A and B – clearly George Esparza and John Lee.

Lastly look at the depressing contrast. While Lee has been lapping up luxury largess from shady business people – living it up in Las Vegas, he is at the same time failing to provide for his most vulnerable constituents. Lee is blocking supportive housing for the unhoused, and calling for more law enforcement to sweep homeless individuals away from his district. His constituents deserve better and more respectful leadership.

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