DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — The criminal trial of a former LA deputy Mayor, and accused co-conspirator of disgraced ex-Councilmember Jose Huizar, is offering a new more detailed look into the morass of corruption, kickbacks, and public betrayal that marked that era at City Hall.

Raymond Chan, 66, stands accused by federal prosecutors of 12 felony charges, including bribery and racketeering, and if convicted could face decades in prison. However, the trial has recently been put on hold, due to the hospitalization of Chan’s lead attorney.

Key to the case is the claim, made by the prosecution, that after his retirement from City Hall, Chan was given a cushy job by a downtown developer, in exchange for having facilitated bribes to Huizar, often in the form of luxurious and vice-filled trips to Las Vegas — and on one occasion in the form of $600,000 to pay off a sexual harassment settlement.

Huizar pled guilty to two federal felonies in January, admitting to the bulk of what has come out in the Chan trial. Still, this new trial has provided a window into systemic corruption at City Hall during an era marked by rising homelessness across LA, and concerns over a downtown development boom some already suspected was rooted in corruption. In this trial, Huizar’s longtime assistant has testified to a blatant and indiscriminate pattern of bribes sought by Huizar during his 15-year tenure, from 2005 to 2020, saying that anyone looking to do business was subject to shakedowns.

The June 2020 indictment focuses in part on Chan’s post-City Hall job for a developer as a key part of his racketeering conspiracy with Huizar. The company was owned by George Chiang, an associate of a wealthy developer bribing Huizar to win favor for a planned redevelopment of the Luxe Hotel near the Staples Center. Chiang pled guilty in May 2020 to a racketeering conspiracy charge, and is a key prosecution witness in Chan’s trial.

The trial has been on hold since March 3 after Chan’s lead lawyer, Harland Braun, was hospitalized. Braun’s associate, Brendan Pratt, has asked for a mistrial, saying Braun will be unavailable for at least several months, but U.S. District Judge John Walter has so far has declined to grant one. Instead, the judge has requested more information from Braun’s doctors. Another status conference is scheduled for April 14.

Braun repeatedly told the jury in his opening statement that Chan will testify in his own defense, while describing him as the victim of a sloppy investigation and a rush to judgment. He’s emphasized that Chan never joined Huizar on the Las Vegas gambling trips with a wealthy developer that eyewitness testimony said included trysts with prostitutes, but prosecutors have elicited testimony that Chan helped arrange the trips and knew Huizar was making the trips secretly, in violation of disclosure laws and limits regarding political gifts.

Until the end of this trial the conspiracy’s biggest players, including Huizar and his longtime assistant, George Esparza, remain in sentencing limbo. Prosecutors are delaying all sentencings until after every defendant has resolved their charges.

Huizar had long been scheduled to be tried alongside Chan, but in January he took a plea deal that called for prosecutors to recommend no more than 13 years in prison. His sentencing currently is scheduled for April 3, but that could change depending on the scheduling of Chan’s trial.

Trial exposed gritty details

Another major witness testifying against Chan is George Esparza, who took a plea deal in 2020. Esparza has testified in the only two previous jury trials in the conspiracy: one against developer David Lee and another against Shen Zhen New World I LLC, which was behind the proposal to turn the 13-story L.A. Grand Hotel downtown into a 77-story skyscraper.

That company is owned by billionaire Wei Huang, a Chinese national whom Esparza has said bribed Huizar with extravagant trips to Las Vegas. Huizar has also admitted to taking bribes from a second developer, Fuer Yuan, the Luxe Hotel developer who worked with Chiang.

Esparza took the stand early in Chan’s trial, repeating some details already recounted in the previous trials. But he also offered new insights into the scope of the conspiracy. 

According to Esparza, Huizar had a penchant for bribes that was blatant and indiscriminate. Huizar often said, “Let’s hit these fuckers up,” and referred to potential bribe targets as cows. And in Wei Huang, Huizar found a particularly willing subject. The billionaire loved gambling in Las Vegas, and his interests appear to have matched the hedonistic impulses that Esparza said dominated Huizar’s policy-making decisions.

George Esparza leaving the federal courthouse downtown. (Meghann / Los Angeles Public Press)
George Esparza leaving the federal courthouse downtown. (Meghann / Los Angeles Public Press)

Along the way, prosecutors say Chan played a key role in the Huizar-Huang relationship by acting as an English-Chinese translator — and according to Esparza’s testimony, Chan’s role didn’t stop there. He is also accused of having encouraged Huizar and Huang to gamble together in Las Vegas, and of encouraging Huang to give Huizar $600,000, in 2014, to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a staffer with whom he’d had an extramarital affair.

According to Esparza, Chan’s relationship with Huizar was strengthened by the arrangement. Esparza added the Huang referred to the settlement pay-out as the “most expensive pussy he’s ever paid for” during a Las Vegas rendezvous.

Esparza testified that Chan was so involved in the secret arrangement that he fretted over who in City Hall might have known about it when, years later, he learned that the FBI was asking questions about Huizar and Huang’s relationship.

Esparza said he had worked with Huang’s assistant, Ricky Zheng, to create a shell company to hide the donation. The men had already been working together for years: Zheng and Esparza traveled with Huizar to Vegas via Huang’s jet for the first meeting with Huang. The young men also sometimes took the jet together after Huizar grew concerned about possible detection and started taking Southwest Airlines flights to Vegas instead of Huang’s jet.

Huizar’s concern wasn’t unfounded: Esparza testified about a run-in Huizar had with security at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, in 2015, that scared him from returning to the casino and heightened his fear about who might ask for his identification. It stemmed from Huizar handing his identification to a Palazzo casino employee at a black jack table, only to be approached by security a few minutes later and told he’d been identified as an elected official.

Esparza testified that he heard firsthand from Huizar that security had told him he needed to sign a document confirming his casino chips were his and not a gift, but Huizar refused and fled the casino instead. Esparza also described how the incident prompted a series of changes by Huizar though he did not halt his criminal activity, only letting it “cool off.” But according to Esparza, surveillance footage of Huizar together with Huang at the Palazzo eventually ended up with the FBI agents who went on to secure key federal search warrants that led to Huizar’s indictment.

Esparza testified that he learned in 2017 that FBI agents were asking about him and Huizar. He didn’t start cooperating until 2018, but he testified that his contacts with agents in 2017 were enough to make him want to part ways with his longtime boss. In December of 2017 he approached Huizar in his City Hall office to tell him he was quitting.

He’d worked for the councilman full-time since 2009, and his mother and Huizar attended elementary school together. But Esparza was developing a distrust of Huizar that he said made him want to record the conversation “to protect myself.” For months, Esparza had held on to $200,000 in cash given by Huang to Huizar, eventually passing it to Zheng for safekeeping, and he knew Huizar would ask him about it.

Jurors heard the recording during Esparza’s testimony, including Esparza telling Huizar, “This is scary, boss,” and Huizar agreeing they should wait a few months before touching the money.

Jurors also saw increasingly hostile text messages that Huizar sent Esparza through 2018 regarding the $200,000, which was eventually seized by the FBI, but at one point had been stored in Esparza’s bedroom at his grandparents’ home where he resided. Esparza said Huizar’s collection efforts culminated with the 15-year City Council veteran stopping by the home when Esparza wasn’t there and telling Esparza’s grandfather that Esparza owed him money.

“I was really pissed off because he was trying to intimidate my grandfather,” Esparza said.

Jurors have also heard from Huizar’s estranged wife, Richelle Rios, who recalled Chan and Huang meeting with her and Huizar to discuss whether she’d stay in her marriage after Huizar’s affair with a staff member became public. At the time, Huang was bribing Huizar to support his proposed redevelopment of the L.A. Grand Hotel, and prosecutors say he wanted to help assure Huizar’s reelection by ensuring Rios didn’t divorce him. Rios testified that she, “pretty much reassured them that I was going to stay in the marriage.”

Rios said Chan later visited her home to see Huizar, but “Jose wasn’t there yet,” and Chan ended up telling her that Huang was willing to pay the $600,000 Huizar needed to settle the lawsuit. Her testimony supports prosecutors’ argument that while Chan didn’t join Huizar and Huang on their Vegas gambling trips, he encouraged and helped facilitate their conspiracy. Chan also encouraged Rios to run for her husband’s District 14 council seat in 2020, Rios said, though her candidacy fell apart after the FBI searched her’s and Huizar’s home in 2018.

“I just didn’t see a path forward after that,” Rios testified.

Before its abrupt ending, Rios’s candidacy served as another conduit for her husband’s corruption, according to testimony, with Huizar seeking donations in exchange for his attention and action as a councilman. This was highlighted in testimony from Morrie Goldman, a former political consultant who pled guilty in 2020 to a conspiracy to commit bribery charge in connection with the City Hall scandal. He said he was skeptical of the viability of Rios’ Council candidacy, describing her as “not someone who had the fire in her belly” for a political run.

“It really didn’t look like she was very enthusiastic about running,” Goldman said. But Huizar was enthusiastic about raising money for her political action committee. Jurors saw a text message he sent Goldman that said, “are they going to donate to the PAC?” referring to a developer with a proposed project downtown. Goldman texted back, “As your friend — let’s discuss this in a different text thread.”

Jurors also heard from former Los Angeles Planning Commission President David Ambroz about a strange meeting he said Chan arranged with him in 2017 to discuss the commission’s upcoming vote on the Luxe Hotel redevelopment. Planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor’s office and consider projects before they go to the City Council. Ambroz found it odd that Chan wanted to meet at Mama Shelter Bar and Restaurant in Hollywood, and he said the meeting was as though “I was having a conversation with a lobbyist” while fully aware he was meeting with one of Los Angeles’ most powerful appointed officials because of Chan’s status as the deputy mayor for economic development.

Ambroz testified that he left the meeting feeling as though he’d “been leaned on.” But he also didn’t believe he could do anything about it, and he felt he could still approach the project independently, he said Thursday.

“I remember walking out being like, Who do I call? Do I call the mayor? Do I call a hotline and say, ‘Hey, I think the deputy mayor is trying to lean on me?’” Ambroz testified.

But Ambroz said he wanted to continue on because he was confident in his ability to stay independent and was bothered by development in downtown that “felt so corrupt.” Ambroz said he was “very concerned” about the influx of development in Huizar’s downtown district, particularly around the Staples Center. He was seeing “a lot of odd things being requested” of the Planning Commission, and all the activity felt “not right.”

He eventually voted for the project and passed it on to the City Council, though it stalled amid the growing City Hall scandal.

Meghann Cuniff is a freelance legal affairs journalist in Southern California. More of her writing about the courts can be found at her Substack: Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff: