How L.A. City Hall became so corrupt: A recent history of bribes, kickbacks, scandal, leaks

Photo collage illustration of L.A. City Council members with city hall in the center.
(Illustration: Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; photos: Carolyn Cole, Al Seib, Mel Melcon, Gary Coronado, Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times; Walt Mancini / The Orange County Register via AP)

The recent leak of a recording that exposed some of Los Angeles' top officials making abhorrent racist comments, disparaging multiple racial and ethnic groups, has rocked the City of Angels.

But City Hall is no stranger to scandal — with many elected leaders and officials still facing the fallout from prior missteps, including three current or former council members who have been charged with federal crimes.

For anyone new to the mayhem in L.A. politics, here's a quick refresher of some of the most memorable — or perhaps infamous — scandals in recent history. Buckle up.

Gil Cedillo, from left, Nury Martinez and Kevin de León
(Photos: Carolyn Cole, Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The racist leaked audio

The Los Angeles political world has been roiled this week by audio from a 2021 closed-door meeting among some of the city's most powerful Latino leaders discussing the city's redistricting process. Many have since raised concerns about their discussion about ways to expand their political power amid a contentious redistricting process, but it's the racist comments the group flippantly shared that have sparked an onslaught of outrage and condemnation from Angelenos all the way to the White House.

In the clip, then-City Council President Nury Martinez disparaged a white council member's Black son, using a Spanish phrase meaning “looks like a monkey” and suggesting the child needed to be beaten to make him behave. She said the council member treated his son like an "accessory," and Councilmember Kevin de León later seemed to compare the council member's handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag. The conversation also included Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Ron Herrera, then-president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

In the same conversation, Martinez is also heard making bigoted and crude remarks about Oaxacans, Jews and Armenians.

While calls for the council members to resign have been swift and loud, De León and Cedillo remain in their seats. Martinez finally resigned Wednesday

Herrera resigned Monday night.

After the bombshell recording went public, the California attorney general said his office will open an investigation into the city's redistricting process, which last year redrew lines for the 15-seat City Council.

Mark Ridley-Thomas
(Photo: Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The USC kickback scheme

One of Los Angeles' most prominent political figures, suspended City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, was indicted last year along with a former USC dean on federal charges that he took bribes from the dean in exchange for directing millions in public funding to the university.

Prosecutors say the kickback scheme occurred when Ridley-Thomas sat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2017, before he joined the City Council — from which he was later suspended. He has pleaded not guilty in the case, which remains ongoing.

Marilyn Louise Flynn, the former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, recently struck a plea deal, admitting to bribery in case. She said she agreed to route money from Ridley-Thomas' campaign through the university into his son’s nonprofit in order to hide the origins of the funds. In return, she said Ridley-Thomas agreed to secure the renewal of an L.A. County contract for USC’s online mental health clinic. The alleged quid pro quo also included admission of Ridley-Thomas' son to the university on a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
(Photo: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor's office allegations

In 2020, a Los Angeles police officer who served as a bodyguard for Mayor Eric Garcetti sued the city, alleging that he was repeatedly sexually harassed by one of the mayor’s top advisors. The suit claims that Garcetti witnessed some of the inappropriate behavior, including crude comments and unwanted touching, but did not intervene. The mayor denies the claims.

Months later, Garcetti's chief of staff, Ana Guerrero, stepped down from her post after The Times reported she disparaged labor icon Dolores Huerta in private Facebook group. Guerrero made comments in the social media platform, saying “I hate her” and used a Spanish term that translates to “jealous old lady.”

Guerrero was placed on unpaid leave from Garcetti's office after the incident came to light in June 2021, though she recently returned as a top advisor.

The incident, along with the allegations about Jacobs, brought scrutiny to his office’s workplace culture.

Jose Huizar and Mitchell Englander
(Photos: Walt Mancini/The Orange County Register via AP; Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

'Pay-to-play' scheme

A sprawling federal corruption investigation looking into possible bribery, extortion, money laundering and other crimes landed one former council member in prison and has another still fighting criminal charges against him.

Former City Councilmember Mitchell Englander was sentenced in 2021 to 14 months in prison after being convicted of lying to federal authorities about his dealings with a businessman who provided him $15,000 in secret cash payments and a debauched night in Las Vegas.

Englander's case, though, is part of a larger probe into an alleged “pay-to-play” scheme, which has centered on former Councilmember Jose Huizar. It first gained public attention in 2018 when FBI agents raided the then-council member's home and office.

Huizar was later arrested and is facing federal charges on allegations that he repeatedly took cash bribes and campaign donations from real estate developers in exchange for help getting development projects through the city’s arduous approval process. He has pleaded not guilty.

Huizar’s former special assistant, George Esparza, his older brother, a lobbyist and two real estate consultants have already pleaded guilty to federal crimes in the alleged scheme. Esparza admitted receiving lavish perks — trips to Vegas and Australia, expensive meals and escort services — from a developer looking to build a 77-story skyscraper, while also accepting $8,000 to $10,000 per month from the businessman who provided Englander with cash. Salvador Huizar, the council member's brother, admitted this week that he received envelopes of cash from his brother, who told him to write checks for the same amount from his own bank account.

Also facing charges in the plot is Raymond Chan, a former deputy mayor to Garcetti who focused on economic development. He is accused of an array of illegal activities, including arranging “indirect bribe payments” to key city officials by securing employment contracts for the officials’ relatives, prosecutors claim.

Dealings by L.A. Water and Power executives

At least two officials with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, one former high-level lawyer in City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office and an attorney hired by the city have been charged in a different federal probe, in which prosecutors say DWP officials and city attorneys took part in various crimes, including aiding and abetting extortion and bribery.

Feuer said he had been unaware of any unethical or illegal behavior involving his attorneys and quickly condemned such actions after the scheme was exposed.

Thomas Peters, Feuer's former civil litigation chief, earlier this year admitted in a plea deal that he orchestrated a payoff to someone threatening to reveal damaging information about how city lawyers handled a DWP lawsuit over faulty billing. Prosecutors said the city’s legal team colluded with the lawyers representing DWP ratepayers.

The former DWP top executive, David Wright, took part in a related scheme, overseeing a $30-million DWP contract with an outside company, which, in return, promised Wright a job at the company upon retirement at a $1-million salary, and access to a Mercedes-Benz.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, Joe Buscaino Mitch Englander, Nury Martinez, Jose Huizar and Gil Cedillo
(photos by: Mel Melcon, Gary Coronado, Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Illegal developer donations

More than seven local politicians, most from City Hall, received donations from a Torrance-based developer lobbying public officials to approve a new apartment complex. The developer was later convicted of felony conspiracy in the campaign money laundering case.

A 2016 Times investigation found that a sprawling network of more than 100 people and companies with direct or indirect ties to the developer, Samuel Leung, made political donations totaling more than $600,000 to the seven politicians over six years while Leung’s development was under review. The apartment complex was later approved.

These donations became the subject of a joint investigation by the D.A.'s office, the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office and the Ethics Commission, which found donations to the politicians often came from unlikely sources, some of whom said they had no knowledge of contributions made in their name — violating campaign finance law.

Records show  current and former Councilmembers Joe Buscaino, Englander, Martinez, Huizar and Cedillo, as well as now-County Supervisor Janice Hahn, all received substantial donations linked to Leung, sometimes receiving the money as they were poised to make key decisions about the development. Donations tied to Leung also went to an independent campaign committee that supported Garcetti, but was not controlled by him.

Leung pleaded guilty in 2020. No elected officials were charged in the case.

Nury Martinez
(Photo: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Feds and county probed campaign contributions

Former council President Martinez's 2015 reelection campaign was the target of both a federal and local investigation, though she and her staff were never charged criminally.

Federal prosecutors began probing Martinez's campaign in 2015, issuing subpoenas to many of her staffers and later questioning donors who gave small amounts to support the reelection.

Those donors were key to Martinez’s campaign, demonstrating grass-roots support that allowed her to qualify for a much larger pool of taxpayer-funded matching dollars. Officials with L.A.'s district attorney's office also focused on these smaller donations, investigating an allegation of fraud.

Although the district attorney's Public Integrity Division determined "that some of the $5 donations were not made by the purported donor," investigators said "the evidence was insufficient to prove who was ultimately responsible."

Times staff writers Dakota Smith, Emily Alpert Reyes, David Zahniser, Benjamin Oreskes, Julia Wick, Michael Finnegan, Matt Hamilton, Harriet Ryan and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.