LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price -- who is accused of voting on projects involving developers tied to his wife's consulting firm and then failing to report the connections -- pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of theft by embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest.
Price entered his plea after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Richman rejected the defense's legal challenge to the 10 charges against the councilman.
In a brief statement to reporters after the hearing, the city councilman maintained his innocence and said he looks forward to proving it in a court of law. The councilman also thanked a large group of supporters who packed the downtown Los Angeles courtroom for the afternoon hearing.
Price is due back in court March 1, when a date will be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.
The case was filed last June against Price, with his arraignment having been postponed at four court hearings since then.
Price, 73, has maintained his innocence and is free on his own recognizance.
He has represented the Ninth District, which includes most of South Los Angeles and Exposition Park, since 2013. He previously served in the state Assembly and state Senate.
One of Price's attorneys, Michael Schafler told reporters that the defense was "disappointed by the court's decision," while noting that "it doesn't come as a big surprise."
"During the demurrer, Councilmember Price was only allowed to contest the allegations on the face of the complaint without consideration of the evidence," Schafler said. "The district attorney will now be required to back up the charges. Having closely examined a substantial portion of the prosecution's evidence, we are confident that they will be unable to meet their burden ... He maintains his innocence and continues to urge the residents of Council District 9 and the wider Los Angeles community to withhold judgment while the legal process unfolds."
Deputy District Attorney Casey Higgins countered, "Our standard for filing any case is beyond a reasonable doubt, so we're pretty confident in our charges. That's why we filed it. That's why we filed the charges that we did."
The prosecutor told reporters that it was "very telling that a judge signed off (in June 2023) on an arrest warrant on these exact same charges after reviewing the evidence."
"During that hearing (Monday), you also heard that there's other evidence in the various filing documents that show that potentially other charges could be charged."
In their challenge to the complaint, defense attorneys contended in a court filing that the five counts of grand theft by embezzlement against Price are "barred by the statute of limitations."
The defense also contends that the allegations in the complaint are "insufficient to allege a crime" involving the two conflict-of-interest charges, and that the facts stated in the complaint involving the three perjury charges "do not constitute a public offense."
The prosecution has countered that the defense's challenge should be denied.
The prosecutor wrote in his response that the defense's challenge was "unsupported by the law and meritless."
He added that the prosecution is not barred by the statute of limitations because "the prosecution was initially commenced on June 13, 2023, which was within four years after the completion of the offenses" involving five of the challenged charges.
The criminal complaint alleges that Price effectively embezzled money between 2013 and 2017 by having the city cover roughly $33,800 in medical premiums for Del Richardson, to whom he claimed to be married, although he was still married at the time to Lynn Suzette Price.
After his initial court appearance last July, Price issued a statement saying, "We are looking forward to engaging with the DA in the coming weeks and we are grateful that the court has given us time to do so. I want to thank my constituents and the entire city of Los Angeles for the outpouring of support I have received and I look forward to continuing to do the people's business."
Price's statement went on to say, "As we said when the charges were brought, we believe that the charges filed by the DA's office are completely unwarranted and that the facts will bear this out. I have always conducted myself, in and out of the public eye, with integrity and professionalism."
Price sent a letter that afternoon to Council President Paul Krekorian announcing his decision to step down as council president pro tem, and surrendering all of his committee assignments.
"While I navigate through the judicial system to defend my name against unwarranted charges filed against me, the last thing I want to do is be a distraction to the people's business," Price wrote in the letter.
Price returned last Aug. 8 to City Hall for the first time since he had been charged, entering the council's chambers with a business-as-usual approach and with little to no disruption from those in attendance.
During the public comment period that day, a few members of the public openly criticized Price's return, mostly saying he should not be voting at all.
If convicted, Price could face a sentence ranging from probation to roughly eight to 10 years behind bars, the prosecutor said outside court following a brief hearing in July.
Price is the latest Los Angeles city official to fall into legal or political turmoil. Former council members Jose Huizar and Mitch Englander have both pleaded guilty to federal charges in recent years, while Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted last year of federal charges for trading votes during his time on the county Board of Supervisors in exchange for benefits provided by USC to his son.
Former City Council President Nury Martinez resigned in 2022 after being caught on tape in a racially charged conversation with two other council members and a county labor official, discussing the council's redistricting process.