LOS ANGLES (CNS) -- Former L.A. City Councilman José Huizar was sentenced Friday to 13 years in federal prison for using his powerful position at City Hall to shake down real estate developers for at least $1.5 million in cash and benefits in exchange for help driving downtown real estate projects through the city's approval process, and for cheating on his taxes.
Huizar, 55, of Boyle Heights, "made a business of his public office at the expense of the citizens of Los Angeles," U.S. District Judge John Walter said from the bench before imposing sentence.
Huizar sat stonily during the two-hour hearing in downtown Los Angeles, briefly addressing the court to apologize to his family and former constituents. He said he hoped others in public office would take heed of his current situation.
The judge gave Huizar until April 30 to begin serving his sentence. Along with the prison term, Walter ordered restitution of $443,905 payable to the city of Los Angeles and $38,792 to the Internal Revenue Service. Huizar must also serve three years of supervised release following prison.
"No one is above the law," said Martin Estrada, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. "Today's sentence shows that even a powerful elected official like Huizar will be held accountable for engaging in criminal misconduct. Huizar was elected to serve the interests of the hard-working people of Los Angeles, but he instead served his own personal interests in a long-running, pay-to-play, bribery scheme. Our community deserves better."
The former councilman pleaded guilty a year ago to federal counts of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and tax evasion in a sprawling criminal probe that ensnared lobbyists, consultants and other city officials and staffers, who sought to personally enrich themselves and their families and associates in exchange for official acts, authorities said.
Walter called the defendant "one of the most corrupt officials of the last several years." The judge added that Huizar yearned to "live the good life, as enjoyed by the wealthy developers" he unlawfully did business with.
Huizar represented Council District 14, which includes downtown Los Angeles and its surrounding communities, from 2005 until his resignation in 2020. According to his lawyers, Huizar was "an evangelist for robust development" in efforts to ensure Los Angeles was befitting of a "world-class city."
In his plea agreement, Huizar admitted leading the so-called CD-14 Enterprise, which operated as a pay-to-play scheme in which Huizar -- assisted by others -- illegally used his office to give favorable treatment to real estate developers who financed and facilitated cash bribes, campaign donations and other illicit benefits.
"For years, defendant operated his pay-to-play scheme in the city of Los Angeles to monetize his public position and leverage his political clout for over $1.5 million dollars in cash bribes, gambling chips, luxury trips, political contributions, prostitutes, extravagant meals, services, concerts and other gifts," according to a memo filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles. "If anyone dared rebuff his call to pay bribes, he punished them and their city projects, threatening developers with indefinitely delayed projects and financial peril."
Huizar also admitted accepting a $600,000 bribe payment in the form of a "loan" from China-based billionaire real estate developer Wei Huang for use to secretly settle a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against Huizar by a former staffer.
Huang's downtown Los Angeles-based company was found guilty in 2022 of paying more than $1 million in bribes -- including luxury trip expenses, casino gambling chips and the sham loan -- to the then-councilman to obtain city approval to build a 77-story mixed-use skyscraper downtown. Huang, who owns a house in San Marino, was also charged in the case but is considered a fugitive believed to be in China, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Due to the scheme, development in the downtown area "is now tainted because of this defendant," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins told the court Friday.
Huizar's attorney, Charles Snyder, arguing for a nine-year sentence, told the court that his client grew up in poverty in rural Mexico, eventually earned a law degree from UCLA, and was elected to the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District and in 2005 to a seat on the L.A. City Council.
"What makes this case sad is the element of what could have been," Snyder said.