Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty to a single felony charge Tuesday in the ongoing corruption probe of City Hall, admitting he schemed to prevent federal investigators from learning about cash and other freebies he received from a Southern California businessman.
Englander struck a plea deal nearly four months ago, acknowledging that he accepted cash in envelopes, a hotel stay and other gifts during trips to Las Vegas and the Palm Springs area, and then engaged in an effort to lie to investigators. He pleaded guilty to one count of scheming to falsify material facts.
In his plea agreement, Englander admitted lying to FBI agents about the gifts he had received from a businessman. He also admitted to advising that businessman, who was looking to sell home technology and high-end cabinets, to lie to FBI investigators and conceal key facts about the Vegas trip.
Englander, in a brief statement, said he accepts "full responsibility" for his conduct and is grateful to his friends and family for supporting him.
"I look forward to continuing to contribute to my community and helping others," said the former councilman, who represented the northwest San Fernando Valley from 2011 to 2018.
In some ways, Englander seemed like a politician who had wandered into the middle of someone else's corruption probe. Englander flew to Las Vegas in June 2017 with an assortment of city staffers and others at a time when FBI agents were looking into frequent visits to that city by Councilman Jose Huizar and one of his staffers, George Esparza.
By then, the FBI's probe into Huizar and Esparza was nearly 2 years old. Investigators ultimately concluded that both men had been receiving an array of bribes, including more than a dozen trips to Vegas, from a Chinese billionaire seeking to develop a 77-story tower in downtown Los Angeles.
Both men are now facing racketeering charges.
While in Vegas, Englander accepted an envelope with $10,000 in cash from a businessman seeking to make connections with real estate developers in Los Angeles. That businessman also provided an expensive dinner, bottle service at a nightclub and a hotel room, and at one point instructed a female escort to show up at Englander's room.
Esparza, the Huizar aide, went on the Vegas trip. So did John Lee, who at the time was a high-level Englander aide. Lee won Englander's council seat in a special election last year and was reelected in March, roughly a week before Englander surrendered to authorities.
Protesters gathered outside the courthouse on Tuesday, calling on Lee to resign. The indictment in the Englander case said a top Englander staffer — identified as "City Staffer B" — received some of the same perks during the Vegas trip. After being contacted by investigators, Englander sent the businessman backdated checks for himself and his aide, according to the indictment.
"If John Lee is Staffer B, there's absolutely no doubt that he assisted Mitch Englander in falsifying information and lying to the FBI," said Ina Morton, a member of the West Valley People's Alliance, the group that staged the protest.
Lee has repeatedly declined to say whether he is City Staffer B. In a previous statement, he said he cooperated with investigators and did “everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip.”
Englander, 49, also admitted in his plea agreement that he took an additional $5,000 in an envelope from the same businessman while in a bathroom at the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa near Palm Springs. A week later, Englander set up a lunch so that the businessman could pitch his company's product to a local real estate developer, the agreement says.
Although sentencing is scheduled for September, the judge indicated the matter would likely be postponed. Under the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed not to seek a sentence of imprisonment of more than 36 months. They also intend to dismiss the other six counts in the Englander indictment.
Sabrina Johnson, an activist on housing and homelessness, sat in the audience as Asst. U.S. Atty. Mack Jenkins recited the many details in the case, describing Englander's secretly recorded conversations and his repeated use of a disappearing message app. Johnson, a vocal critic of City Hall, described the proceedings as "the highlight of my week."
"It's nice for the details of this come to light," she said.
Englander, who had been a reserve member of the Los Angeles Police Department, is the third figure to plead guilty in the sprawling City Hall corruption probe. A former city planning commissioner who raised money for Huizar and a real estate consultant have done the same.
In recent weeks, prosecutors have charged Huizar and Esparza with racketeering, saying both men had accepted casino trips, casino chips, private jet travel, cash and other bribes. Esparza has reached a plea deal with prosecutors.
In a 116-page affidavit, prosecutors have portrayed Huizar as the head of a criminal enterprise, saying he squeezed developers and other businessmen for bribes and campaign donations in exchange for help with their real estate projects.
Huizar has not yet entered a plea and his lawyers have declined to discuss the allegations, saying they intend to represent their client in court, not in the media.
U.S. Atty. Nick Hanna said last month that the investigation is ongoing.