Opinion: Corruption, escorts and dirty cash at L.A. City Hall? You don't say

Kerry Cavanaugh
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander, seen in 2015, was arrested on Monday.  (Los Angeles Times)

For anyone who’s been following the ongoing corruption investigation at L.A. City Hall, including the flurry of FBI raids in recent months, take a look at your indictment bingo card to see if you have former Councilman Mitch Englander.

The former North San Fernando Valley councilman is the first — and so far, only — politician to face charges in the wide-ranging corruption probe.

Englander was arrested Monday on charges that he obstructed an investigation. The investigation was into whether he had accepted cash, female escort services, hotel rooms and expensive meals from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs. Englander allegedly lied to the FBI about his conduct, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

For months now, we’ve been waiting for something, anything to come out of the lengthy federal investigation that’s hung over City Hall. It started in Nov. 2018 when FBI agents raided the offices and home of Councilman Jose Huizar, who was chairman of the council committee that makes key decisions on some of the most important real estate policies and development projects.

Then reporters dug up a search warrant that suggested the Huizar raid was just the tip of the iceberg, and that the feds were actually conducting a broader investigation into an array of potential crimes, including money laundering, bribery and extortion. The warrant was a who’s who of City Hall power brokers, naming Huizar, Councilman Curren Price, an aide to Councilman Herb Wesson, one of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointees and his former deputy mayor for economic development.

Then the FBI came back a few months later in July 2019, this time raiding the Department of Water and Power and the offices of City Atty. Mike Feuer. This investigation appeared to be targeting questionable contracts and the city’s settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed after the disastrous rollout of the new customer bill system in 2013.

Now comes Englander’s indictment, which was a surprise because he wasn’t named in the previous warrants. But it might explain why Englander abruptly resigned from the City Council in late 2018, two years before the end of his term, ostensibly to become a lobbyist for a well-connected sports and entertainment firm. By that time, Englander was well aware that the FBI was looking into his behavior, according to the indictment.

The charges unveiled Monday stem from a June 2017 trip to a Las Vegas resort and casino. Englander went with an unnamed businessman, along with a council aide, a city staffer, a lobbyist and a real estate developer, according to the indictment. (One of those aides was John Lee, a senior staffer to Englander who subsequently was elected to the council himself.)

The businessman allegedly got them all hotel rooms and treated the group to dinner and drinks — including approximately $24,000 in alcohol at a nightclub, investigators found. The businessman also told Englander he was ordering female escorts for the group, and paid the women $300 to $400 in cash for their services, the indictment states.

And, while at the resort, Englander took an envelope containing $10,000 in cash from the businessman in a bathroom, according to the indictment.

Needless to say, Englander did not report any of these gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms.

The FBI reached out to Englander within a few months of his trip. Unbeknownst to the councilman, his businessman benefactor had begun cooperating with the FBI and apparently provided evidence of how Englander allegedly lied and tried to cover his tracks.

Englander faces seven counts — three of witness tampering, three for allegedly making false statements and a single count of scheming to falsify facts. He could face a maximum of 50 years in federal prison.

Is Englander the first domino to go down in a larger corruption probe? Will the indictment affect Lee, who was with Englander in Vegas but said he was unaware of illegal activities and has cooperated fully with the FBI? It’s impossible to say. But the Englander indictment only adds to the longstanding view that L.A. City Hall is tainted by cozy relationships and pay-to-play politics.

For the record:
7:58 AM, Mar. 11, 2020: An earlier version of this article said Englander went to Las Vegas with two of his council office aides. He went with one council aide and a city staffer, both of whom were unnamed in the indictment.