LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles Councilman John Lee has been accused of violating governmental ethics laws during a trip in which he allegedly accepted gifts in excess of the gift limit.
According to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, the accusations stem from a 2017 trip to Las Vegas when he was working as chief of staff for former Councilmember Mitchell Englander.
Investigators say in 2016 and during the trip - which occurred before he was elected into city council - Lee accepted multiple gifts from a businessperson and a developer, most of which exceeded the gift limit. Lee allegedly failed to disclose those gifts on a state form that he was required to file when he left city service, and he allegedly never amended the form to disclose the gifts when he ran for Council District 12 in 2019 and 2020.
"Lee violated governmental ethics laws by accepting gifts in excess of the gift limit, failing to report gifts, misusing his City position, and aiding and abetting another person's misuse of a City position," read an accusations report from the ethics commission, which was released on Monday.
The ethics commission said the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office conducted an investigation, which included interviews with Englander and Lee.
Investigators say Lee assisted Englander in attempting to "mislead the FBI and the USAO regarding whether Englander and Lee had made reimbursements for the gifts received during the 2017 Las Vegas trip."
Lee issued a statement, responding to the allegations, saying he refuses "to be bullied by investigators that are seemingly more focused on garnering headlines than pursuing facts, evidence and the truth, even at the expense."
Lee's full statement can be found below:
"Today, the City Ethics Commission released an accusation against me that is misguided and based on conjecture instead of actual evidence.
For the last 20 months, Commission investigators have wasted critical taxpayer resources to investigate a dinner in 2016 that I do not recall attending, have drastically inflated the amount of food and beverages I consumed during a June 2017 trip in Las Vegas during my final 11 days as a City Council staff member, and lodged accusations that are completely false.
The Commission falsely states that the FBI started an investigation into whether I accepted gifts. Further, they falsely state I attempted to mislead the FBI. Both accusations are categorically false.
They fully know I have never been a target or a subject of any federal investigation. Throughout this process, I have gone above and beyond to cooperate with the Commission's investigation in the name of transparency. I have provided bank statements that corroborate what I recalled about this trip, sat for interviews, and have been transparent every step of the way.
However, it became clear that Commission investigators are not interested in the facts. They have preconceived notions about where their investigation should go and have ignored any exculpatory evidence they obtained.
Further, Commission investigators opted to first contact me in 2022, nearly five years after the events in question took place. Conveniently, investigators have ignored the statute of limitations to ensure their accusations line up with my 2024 re-election.
In my 20 year career with the City, I have never received an ethics violation. When departing city service, I voluntarily and proactively contacted the Ethics Commission to ensure I understood my obligations upon leaving City service.
When I was elected, my wife left behind her successful 20 year career in IT consulting to ensure that there would be no potential or perceived conflict of interest on the chance that her employer would seek a contract with the City. While this has had a major economic impact on my family, my wife and I fully accept being held to the highest standard of accountability.
I also know my actions and stand by my record. I refuse to be bullied by investigators that are seemingly more focused on garnering headlines than pursuing facts, evidence and the truth, even at the expense of people's reputations. For these reasons, I will vigorously fight these baseless accusations and will never apologize for representing the people who live and work in Council District 12."
A probable cause conference was conducted on Aug. 31. The members of the ethics commission board will now need to select a hearing officer for an administrative evidentiary hearing.
After that, the commissioners must determine whether the alleged violations occurred and, if so, what penalty should apply.
Investigators say the maximum penalty is $5,000 per violation or "three times the amount of money that was improperly received or reported."