It was one of the most evocative scenes described by prosecutors in their investigation into corruption at City Hall: a political aide arrives at the home of a Los Angeles councilman and presents him with a box of alcohol filled with money.
George Esparza told prosecutors that in 2017 he brought the Don Julio tequila box filled with $100 bills to the Boyle Heights residence of his boss, then adviser Jose Huizar. Esparza said the adviser first told him to hide the money and then stalked him for the money.
Now, the Bel-Air businessman accused of providing that money faces his day in court, in the first of three trials that make up the sprawling bribery and racketeering case against Huizar.
Lawyers for both sides on Tuesday delivered opening statements in the case against Dae Yong Lee, a property developer accused of paying $500,000 to ensure Huizar paved the way for a 20-story residential tower planned by his limited company, 940 Hill.
Lee, also known as David Lee, pleaded not guilty to bribery, wire fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. He is the majority owner of 940 Hill, which is also a defendant in the case.
Deputy American Atty. Cassie Palmer told the jury that Lee provided the money to “grease the wheels” of the city government. At the time, Lee faced a challenge to her project from a labor group, which threatened to cause major delays and cost tens of millions of dollars, she said.
“The defendants took a cheaper, faster, guaranteed path,” she said.
Ariel Neuman, Lee’s attorney, told jurors his client was a victim, someone who believed the $500,000 he provided was going to a consultant doing legitimate consulting work. In their zeal to fight public corruption, federal prosecutors “swept away someone who had no idea” that Huizar, Esparza and the others were engaged in a criminal enterprise, he said.
Prosecutors are going to come up with an “ugly, ugly story” about corruption, Neuman said. “None of this has anything to do with Mr. Lee.”
The trial of another developer in the case, Shenzhen New World I, is scheduled for October. Huizar’s trial is scheduled for February.
Prosecutors say Huizar was in charge of a massive scheme in which he and others received lucrative favors from developers in exchange for approvals on their downtown high-rise projects. Huizar pleaded not guilty to racketeering, bribery and other charges.
Lee’s company proposed its residential tower seven years ago, applying to build more than 200 apartments on Olympic Boulevard and Hill Street in the South Park section of downtown. The planning department gave initial approval for the project in 2016.
Weeks later, Creed LA, a group representing construction unions, appealed the decision, citing the possibility that the project would require a city council vote.
Lee then turned to consultant Justin Kim to help get rid of the union challenge. Kim, a property appraiser, was a fundraiser for Huizar who knew City Hall – and had once served on the city’s powerful planning commission.
Prosecutors said Kim, while working for Lee, acted as an intermediary between Lee and the council’s office, arranging several “money drops.” Kim retrieved money from Lee and gave some of it to Esparza, who was supposed to give it to Huizar, prosecutors said.
Creed LA – which represents plumbers, electricians and other construction trades – dropped its 940 Hill project challenge in March 2017.
Kim and Esparza pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2020, admitting they participated in a bribery scheme centered on Lee’s project.
In his plea agreement, Kim said he withheld a $100,000 payment intended for Huizar in July 2017.
Neuman, Lee’s attorney, told jurors his client believed Kim was simply negotiating a resolution to the challenge filed by Creed LA, also known as the Coalition for Responsible Equitable Economic Development. Prosecutors pinned their case on Kim — “a liar and a thief” who repeatedly changed his story, Neuman said.
“This case is about a man, my client, who made the mistake of trusting the wrong person,” he said.
Neuman said he intended the defense to call Jeff Modrzejewski, executive director of Creed LA, as a witness. The defense also plans to call mayoral lobbyist Chris Modrzejewski, brother of Jeff Modrzejewski.
Chris Modrzejewski intends to assert his 5th Amendment right to remain silent, according to a recent filing in the case. A representative for Chris Modrzejewski declined to comment when contacted by The Times.
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On Tuesday, prosecutors began questioning FBI Special Agent Andrew Civetti, who was deeply involved in the case and described his work extracting information from cellphones belonging to Esparza, the special assistant. by Huizar. They also showed jurors photos of the liquor box and stacks of $100 bills taken by Esparza.
Prosecutors said Esparza kept extensive notes about the bribe money he was carrying.
At one point, he took a photo of a napkin on which he wrote the words “Give money to CM Huizar 2/10/2017,” according to a recent filing.
Esparza was “a particularly meticulous record holder,” Palmer said.
Los Angeles Times