A federal judge ruled today that two real estate developers will be tried separately from Jose Huizar, the former Los Angeles city councilman they are accused of bribing to get their projects approved. David Lee and Shen Zhen New World will each go to trial in downtown Los Angeles prior to the start of October proceedings against Huizar, U.S. District Judge John Walter ruled.
The judge determined that the size of the case against Huizar would likely overshadow evidence against the developers. Huizar, the central figure in a six-year probe of suspected corruption in City Hall politics, and his associates were allegedly involved in a $1.5 million pay-to-play scheme in which real estate developers were shaken down for cash and campaign donations in exchange for help getting building projects through the city’s approval process.
Federal prosecutors allege that Huizar illegally accepted more than $800,000 in benefits from billionaire developer Wei Huang, mainly during gambling trips to Las Vegas. Huang, who owns Shen Zhen New World, is charged in the case but lives in China and has never been arrested. Walter broke up the lengthy indictment into three trials — Lee and 940 Hill LLC on June 14, Shen Zhen New World on Aug. 2, and Huizar and Raymond Chan, formerly the city’s deputy mayor of economic development, on Oct. 18. Lee, a developer with multiple properties in Los Angeles, and his 940 Hill company are charged with bribery, honest services fraud, among other charges. Shen Zhen New World, which acquired the L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown in 2011 for $90 million and planned to redevelop it into a 77-story tower, faces similar charges.
Chan is charged with racketeering conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and lying to federal agents. Huizar is charged in 34 of the indictment’s 41 counts. Defense attorneys contend that Huizar’s only crime was acting as an “evangelist for robust development” whose mission as representative of Council District 14 was to bring hotels, apartments, jobs, tourism, and entertainment to the city’s downtown, according to court filings. Huizar, 53, who represented downtown L.A. and was the chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, has denied all allegations.
The federal probe ensnared lobbyists, developers such as Huang, and political operatives, including former city official Raymond Chan. Formerly the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, Chan was, more recently, the city’s deputy mayor of economic development. The defense argues that Huizar and Chan saw it as their responsibility to bring development and businesses to downtown Los Angeles. Partly as a result of their work, “the region became a livable and attractive destination for locals and tourists alike. During this period, nearly everyone in Los Angeles talked or heard about how much downtown had improved.”
Co-defendants George Esparza, Huizar’s former special assistant, real estate development consultant George Chiang, and fundraiser Justin Kim each pleaded guilty in 2020 to federal charges.