LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former top aide to Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar will plead guilty to a federal racketeering charge in a $1 million bribery scheme involving real estate developers, federal prosecutors announced Wednesday.
George Esparza, 33, agreed to plead to a count of racketeering conspiracy, which could carry a maximum 20-year prison term, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Esparza left his city job in 2018. He currently is chief of staff to California Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles. In February, the Assembly speaker formally reprimanded Esparza and Carrillo for inappropriate behavior. Those were identified as an unwanted hug and kiss from the assemblywoman and coarse sexual comments from Esparza. Both were ordered to undergo instruction on workplace conduct.
In his plea agreement, Esparza acknowledged that from 2013 to 2018, he and a council member were involved in a scheme to sell influence to several developers, including the billionaire head of a Chinese company who wanted to build a 77-story skyscraper on downtown land. Esparza and the council member made more than a dozen trips to casinos in Las Vegas and Australia at the billionaire’s expense, according to the agreement.
“Esparza personally accepted at least approximately $32,000 in gambling chips, plus flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxurious hotels, expensive meals and alcohol, spa services, event tickets, and escort services,” according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.
In the plea agreement, Esparza said the Chinese company owner also provided $600,000 to help the council member resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit filed during a 2014 reelection campaign.
Esparza also helped negotiate a $500,000 cash bribe from another developer to secure the council member’s help in pressuring a labor group that opposed a project to end an appeal, thus moving the project forward and saving the developer $30 million, according to the plea agreement.
Esparza’s boss is only identified in documents as “Councilmember A” but prosecutors said Esparza was the member’s special assistant and the member chaired the City Council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
Huizar chaired the management committee until 2018, when he was stripped of that and other assignments following FBI raids on his home and offices. Huizar hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime but remains under investigation and colleagues have called on him to resign.
Huizar has refused to make any statements on the matter.
Esparza is the fourth person to agree to plead guilty in the sweeping LA corruption probe. The others include a real estate developer, political fundraiser and former councilman Mitchell Englander.
Englander is expected to plead guilty on June 4. He’s accused of obstructing an investigation into tens of thousands of dollars in cash, female escort services and other perks.