In an effort to block the enforcement of an alleged ethics violation, Los Angeles City Councilmember John Lee has filed suit against the LA City Ethics Commission.
Earlier in October, the Ethics Commission served Lee with a report accusing him of a slew of ethics violations in 2016 and 2017, stemming from a dinner in Los Angeles, a Koreatown poker night, and a Las Vegas bash that was organized to celebrate Lee leaving his position as chief-of-staff to then-councilmember Mitchell Englander.
The gifts Lee is accused of accepting include thousands of dollars in bottle service, dinner, hotel rooms, casino chips and other gifts from a businessman, who does business related to major development projects in Los Angeles, and a real estate developer who runs an architectural firm.
The lawsuit, filed in the California Superior Court, Los Angeles on Oct. 17, comes as the Ethics Commission is set to weigh in on how to move forward with its case against Lee, the details of which were revealed by investigators for the Commission in an accusation report released on Oct. 2.
The Commission will meet Wednesday, Nov. 8, at noon to select someone to serve as a hearing officer who will examine evidence in the case. In advance of that meeting, critics of Lee have revived a petition calling for his resignation. A group called the West Valley People’s Alliance is calling on Lee to resign, and are rallying people to attend the Ethics Commission meeting on Wednesday.
If Lee is eventually found by the Ethics Commission to have committed the violations, he could face a fine of $5,000 per violation or three times the amount of money that was improperly received or reported, whichever is greater. The Ethics Commission’s accusation includes 10 counts.
Lee says it’s too late; Ethics Commission says he hid his violations
In his petition, Lee’s lawyer, Faisal Gill, argues that the Ethics Commission took too long to pursue enforcement of the alleged violations. Lee wants to halt enforcement actions, and to have the Ethics Commission set aside its case against him.
By failing to disclose various gifts, City Ethics Commission investigators argue Lee was concealing the alleged violations. Though the statute of limitations on such violations is normally four years, Commission investigators argue that because Lee hid his alleged wrongdoing they can still move forward with the case, despite the original deadline passing.
Commission investigators also argued by not disclosing the gifts, voters were left without important information about Lee when he ran for office in 2019, in a special election to replace Englander, who stepped down early to take a private sector job. It counts as “material omissions in that a reasonable person could consider the gifts important in evaluating whether Respondent Lee should be elected to or retained in public office,” they wrote in their accusation.
The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission is a body tasked with monitoring and carrying out enforcement of ethics regulations. Its board is appointed by the mayor, city controller, city attorney, City Council vice president and City Council president.
In a statement sent to Los Angeles Public Press on Monday, Nov. 6. Lee said the accusations against him are “misguided and false,” and that he is “pursuing every legal avenue afforded to me to fight” them.
He said he had “no choice” but to challenge the investigation in court, contending that the Ethics Commission has not acted in “good faith.”
Nancy Jackson, a spokesperson for the Ethics Commission, did not provide a comment responding to the lawsuit, saying that “city law prohibits commissioners and staff from commenting on pending enforcement matters.”
The City Attorney’s Office did not respond with comment on Lee’s lawsuit.
Lee’s petition was amended Oct. 24. Lee also submitted a memo in support of the petition, stating that he “rejects all of the allegations contained in the Los Angeles Ethics Commission’s untimely probable cause report and accusations.”
Lee is represented in this lawsuit by Gill, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2022 race for city attorney. But earlier this summer, ahead of the probable cause conference with Ethics investigators, a different attorney, named Amber Maltbie, of Nossaman LLP, was representing him.
Lunch, dinners, a Koreatown poker night and a Vegas trip, and backdated checks
Back in 2016 and 2017, Lee worked as chief-of-staff to then-Councilman Mitchell Englander who represented the 12th Council District, in the northwest San Fernando Valley. That district stretches from Porter Ranch, in the north, to West Hills, in the south.
The Commission says that in 2016, Lee and others, including Englander, met the businessman, identified by the Los Angeles Times to be Andrew Wang (identified in FBI filings as “Businessperson A”), during a lunch meeting at Yxta Cocina Mexicana, in downtown Los Angeles. Wang later paid for dinner and provided wine during a dinner meeting at the Water Grill, with Commission investigators estimating the value of dinner at more than $50.
Then in 2017, gifts were allegedly provided to Lee during a poker night in Koreatown (at which $800 in alcohol and hostess service were paid for, with the Lee’s portion being $133.33), and a $40,000, six-person trip to Las Vegas. Ethics Commission investigators say the gifts Lee received in 2017 were worth $7,831.50, and that $6,891.50 of that was in excess of the legal limit.
In late August, Ethics investigators met with Lee after issuing a determination in June that there existed probable cause to believe Lee committed the ethics violations, which include — in addition to receiving gifts in excess of the limit — failing to disclose gifts he received and misusing his city position at the time — chief-of-staff to Mitch Englander then representing the 12th Council District.
They also accused Lee of assisting Englander in misusing his position as a councilmember by helping to try to mislead FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office investigators. Englander had delivered backdated checks, which made it seem like he and Lee had reimbursed the business person who had given them the gifts in Vegas. The delivery of these checks came ahead of an interview Lee had with the FBI, and ahead of the FBI asking Englander for an interview.
Last month, Lee issued a statement in response to the Ethics Commission’s accusation, saying it was “misguided and based on conjecture instead of actual evidence.” In a memo submitted as part of his lawsuit, Lee reiterated that he said he “rejects” all of the allegations.
But the main argument made in the lawsuit relies more heavily on the issue of the “statute of limitations,” which is the span of time in which enforcement agencies can begin enforcement proceedings — for these violations is four years. Even though it has been at least six years since the events, and the statute of limitations has expired, Ethics investigators argue the commission is permitted to move forward due to the fact that they have found “concealment and deceit” in the case.
In Lee’s petition, Gill addresses this exception, saying that investigators didn’t provide enough evidence of concealment or deceit.
For example, Gill argued that investigators failed to include amounts for the dinner in 2016 at the Water Grill, and only gave an estimate that it was over $50. Lee’s lawsuit contends there was no information given to show that this was a gift that needed to have been reported. According to Ethics gift rules, city officials need to report gifts if they are valued at $50 or more from a particular source.
Lee’s lawsuit also argues that Commission investigator did not provide evidence that Lee told Englander to write a backdated check meant to reimburse the business person who paid for the meals and revelry in 2016 and 2017.
According to the findings of the FBI investigation, Englander delivered an envelope with backdated checks in Aug. 2017 to Wang, the businessman, who paid for much of their Vegas trip expenses. One of the checks was for himself and the other from Lee, each in the amount of $442. A note in the envelope said the checks were for “Vegas expenses.”
City Ethics Commission investigators meanwhile argue there was concealment because Lee did not disclose any gifts in 2016 and 2017 from Wang and the developer, on paperwork he was required to submit, called Form 700, the Statement of Economic Interests. And Lee also did not make amendments to disclose any gifts, they said.
For example, their accusation says in 2017, Wang, the businessman, and a developer gave Lee around $8,000 in gifts, over the course of both the Koreatown poker night and the Las Vegas going away party. When Lee left his job as chief-of-staff to Englander in June, he submitted a disclosure form for such gifts. He did not report any gifts during that period. Lee had also gotten ethics training in 2016.
As Englander’s chief-of-staff, Lee was required to make annual disclosures of any gifts he received of $50 or more. The disclosure forms instruct city officials to sign at the bottom of the form, assuring that what they state in the form is true and correct, under penalty of perjury.
In 2016, the maximum amount had been $460, and in 2017, that amount was $470. The amount has actually gone up since then. Under the current rules, city officials are not allowed to receive gifts any greater than $590 from most sources, and no more than $100 can be received from sources, known as “restricted,” who are involved in a pending decision or have tried to influence officials in the past year. Officials are not allowed to receive any gifts at all from lobbyists. More about the city’s gifts rules can be found here.
‘LA politics sure has gotten weird’
While Lee initially issued a statement saying he was in Las Vegas at the same time as Englander, he has ducked queries about that trip and his former boss, leaving many questions unanswered.
So these latest developments in the 12th Council District around Lee have offered a chance for some constituents to learn a bit more about what went on in 2017, as well as in 2016 — at least as it relates to their current councilmember.
On the day Englander’s indictment was made public on March 9, 2020, Lee issued a statement saying he was in Vegas in 2017, which was the focus of the FBI investigation.
Lee tweeted: “I was in Las Vegas with Councilmember Englander in June 2017, and I did everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to the trip. I completely cooperated with the FBI when they contacted me for voluntary interviews in July and August 2017 and will continue to do so.”
Englander left office in 2018, saying he had a job in the private sector that was too good to pass up. There were still two years left before his term was up. About a year and a half later, in March 2020, he was indicted by federal officials on charges of obstructing an FBI investigation. Englander pled guilty in July 2020 to falsifying material facts in an investigation. He served eight of his 14-month prison sentence and was released in Feb. 2022.
Then in Aug. 2022, the Ethics commission fined Englander $80,000 for failing to disclose upwards of $20,000 in gifts, including during the same 2017 Las Vegas trip Lee was a part of.
But less has come out about the nature of Lee’s involvement, at least publicly. Residents of the 12th district have long believed that Lee could be the person identified as “City Staffer B” in the FBI filings around Englander’s case. City Staffer B is identified in the filings as having been on the Vegas trip. For years, Lee declined to confirm whether he is City Staffer B, although contextual clues have pointed to him as the likeliest person the indictment was referring to.
It was not until this recent Ethics accusation (that is in October, 2023), more than three years later, that it was confirmed that Lee is City Staffer B. Ethics investigators wrote in the accusation that “Lee’s identity was masked in the indictment (he was identified as City Staffer B).”
Tom Booth, a 20 year resident of West Hills, is among the many 12th district residents who closely followed the saga around Englander and Lee as it was happening. Booth served on the West Hills Neighborhood Council, where he tried unsuccessfully to schedule a resolution requesting that an investigation be done on Lee’s activities during the 2017 Vegas trip. (At the time, the 2016 lunch at Yxta Cocina Mexicana and dinner ar the Water Grill, and the 2017 Koreatown poker night were not publicly known.) That resolution was modeled after a similar one passed by the Granada Hills South Neighborhood Council.
Booth said residents have long needed answers, and the lack of information has created a strange dynamic for constituents who have to settle for what has been essentially silence on some important questions about their sitting councilmember.
Booth said that the only way to look at it, it seemed, is that “at the end of the day, [Lee] was either complicit with Englander or he is just incompetent.”
“How could this be going on and he is seemingly involved, but not dirty at all?” Booth said. “How do you be chief-of-staff for Englander and have this happening under your nose, and also be on these Vegas junkets with him and not know what’s happening?”
Booth says that with the cloud of Lee’s involvement on the Vegas trip, and further allegations coming out of the Ethics accusation, his councilman’s continued active role on the City Council, including as a member of the planning and land use management community, continues to become more discordant, and difficult to understand.
“LA politics sure has gotten weird,” he said.
Noon on Wed., Nov. 8: Ethics Commission Takes Up Lee’s Case
The Ethics Commission will decide how to proceed with the evidentiary hearing phase of Lee’s case at its meeting this Wednesday. The commission will need to select an administrative hearing officer and preliminary hearing officer for the evidentiary hearings. Typically an outside entity is hired as the hearing officers, but members of the Ethics Commission can also serve as hearing officers.
The Ethics Commission’s president, Jeff Daar, has since recused himself from having a say in Lee’s case, due to his own involvement in the 2019 special election — in which Lee was ultimately elected to replace Englander — as one of the original candidates in the primary.
With several vacancies in the body waiting to be filled, just who is sitting on the Ethics Commission has also been the subject of much focus in recent months. It became an even bigger focus when in an unusual move, the City Council voted to reject City Controller Kenneth Mejia’s pick for the Commission, Jamie York. Mejia later nominated a different person, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, who has since been confirmed. Another vacancy was filled by the City Council’s confirmation of Alex Johnson, who is vice president of Bryson Gillette, a political consulting firm that has been involved in multiple races.
Lee voted yes on both confirmations, as well as for the rejection of York’s appointment.
- Lee voted Yes on Rabbi Aryeh Eli Cohen’s appointment: 23-1200-S144 (CFMS)
- Lee voted Yes on Alex Johnson’s appointment: 23-1200-S141 (CFMS)
- Lee voted yes to reject Jamie York’s appointment: 23-1200-S130 (CFMS)
Without the appointments the Ethics Commission had been struggling to maintain quorum, and had to cancel one of its regular meetings in August, with just two seats filled and three seats vacant. There is still one vacancy left on the Ethics Commission for a position that needs to be filled with an appointment by Council President Paul Krekorian.
Lee’s Ethics troubles comes amid re-election bid
Lee is running for re-election, and as of what was reported at the end of September, had raised $308,352, and spent $49,142.72, including at least $21,000 on Nossaman LLP, the law firm that was listed as representing Lee in the Ethics accusation. The expenditures also showed a debt of around $12,000 to Nossaman LLP.
Since the Ethics accusation was released in October, another candidate, Serena Oberstein, has stepped into the race. Oberstein is a former president of the Ethics Commission, and is the executive director of Jewish World Watch, a nonprofit that works against genocide and mass atrocities.
Oberstein said “this city and this district has a crisis of conscience, because we’re sick and tired of our elected officials getting accused of lying and not upholding the oath of office that they took.”
Oberstein said there were a few instances while she was on the Ethics Commission that people chose to fight an enforcement case and not settle, similar to what Lee is now doing. She said this is the reason Lee’s case is now moving to the stage of holding evidentiary hearings, which will inevitably cost the city more money.
“Selecting an outside person who may have more legal expertise in the matter could be a good thing,” Oberstein said in an interview with Los Angeles Public Press. “But again, it’s going to cost the city money that they shouldn’t be spending. John Lee’s actions are leading to the city spending more money on what he did wrong, versus focusing on the things that we need to fix in our community.”
Oberstein was one of the more than 20 candidates who were initially running in the 2019 special election to replace Englander, after he stepped down early. Oberstein dropped out of the race after another candidate, Frank Ferry, sued, and a judge sided with his argument over Oberstein’s, that she could run because she had not been involved in decisions affecting races in the 12th District.
Other than Oberstein, another candidate in the current 12th Council District race is Michael Benedetto. Benedetto is listed on the Ethics website, but has not raised any money.
Although several candidates have announced they have entered various city races, and are already disclosing campaign contributions and spending to the Ethics Commission, there is yet another hurdle for candidates to get through.
Starting Monday, Nov. 6, prospective candidates can start filing paperwork with the City Clerk’s Office so they can collect enough signatures to qualify to be on the March 5, 2024 primary election ballot. If no candidate receives the majority of the votes, the top two candidates will need to face off in a runoff in the general election on November 5, 2024.
For those interested in following the 12th district race, the Northridge Indivisible will be holding a “meet the candidates” event also on Nov. 8, in the evening at 7:30 a.m. More information can be found here.