She's been by his side for years. Now an L.A. councilman's wife figures in FBI probe

Emily Alpert Reyes, David Zahniser
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar trades a glance with his wife, Richelle, at an election night party in 2015 at Bishop Mora Salesian High School.  (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

For years, Richelle Huizar stood by her husband, Jose Huizar, as his political star rose.

She stuck with the Los Angeles city councilman in 2013, when he admitted to having an extramarital affair with an aide. She was beaming at his reelection party two years later. And she was seen as a strong contender to replace him on the City Council once he reached his term limit.

Then, FBI agents descended on their home and her political plans were shattered.

Now, as a federal investigation of City Hall corruption zeroes in on the councilman, filings by prosecutors raise questions about whether Richelle Huizar could be called to testify in a case targeting her husband.

Federal prosecutors have laid out a devastating series of allegations against Councilman Huizar, portraying him in court filings as the head of a criminal scheme who used bribes and other illegal tactics to enrich himself and maintain his grip on power. Richelle Huizar has appeared repeatedly in those filings, but whether she knew of any criminal activity is not clear.

Four people have agreed to plead guilty so far in the pay-to-play investigation. Although prosecutors do not name Jose Huizar or his wife in those plea agreements, numerous details in those filings, and the accompanying documents, make clear that the councilman is at the heart of the inquiry.

Those same filings show that investigators have been documenting Richelle Huizar's activities, including her bank deposits and her attendance at a meeting to discuss a consulting agreement that prosecutors later characterized in a plea agreement as an "indirect bribe."

Federal investigators have not said whether they think Richelle Huizar knew that the alleged arrangement was a bribe. Unlike her husband, she has not been identified as a member of the "criminal enterprise" described in their filings.

Neither Huizar nor his wife have been arrested or publicly charged. Attorney Alyssa Bell, who is representing Richelle Huizar, declined to answer questions about the case, saying her client is "not comfortable speaking publicly at this stage."

Lawyers for Jose Huizar declined to comment.

Richelle Huizar is identified in filings only as "Relative A-1" — an unnamed relative of the councilman who worked for a law firm and as a high school fundraiser, who launched a campaign in September 2018 to succeed him. Those biographical details all match up with Richelle Huizar.

Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar speaks during a council meeting on June 16, 2015.  (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Investigators have depicted Relative A-1 as being involved in discussions about a consulting agreement involving an L.A.-based real estate consultant and an unnamed associate of the councilman. In federal filings, they have characterized the consulting payments as an “indirect bribe” from a hotel developer to the councilman, provided in exchange for help with a high-rise project.

The consulting agreement resulted in payments of $11,000 per month to an unnamed associate of Huizar for part of 2016, according to a deal between prosecutors and George Chiang, a real estate consultant who has agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge.

According to the filings, Huizar told Chiang that his wife would be involved in arranging the deal. Richelle Huizar met with the developer's relative at a Pasadena cafe to discuss the complex arrangement, according to the narrative laid out by prosecutors.

Filings in the case also describe repeated trips by Richelle Huizar in 2016 to deposit cash in her Bank of America account in amounts of up to $1,000. In several instances, those deposits were made around the time that the monthly payments were made in that consulting deal, the filings said.

Investigators have portrayed Richelle Huizar’s short-lived council campaign as another component of the criminal scheme. By getting Richelle Huizar elected, the councilman and his associates hoped to preserve their political power over real estate projects, ensuring they would continue receiving cash bribes and other financial benefits from developers in the district, according to the filings.

Prosecutors allege that the councilman and his associates repeatedly pressured developers to give to a political action committee supporting Richelle Huizar's council bid in exchange for “favorable treatment” of their projects at City Hall.

Councilman Huizar allegedly sought a $100,000 contribution from a real estate developer to assist his wife’s candidacy in exchange for helping their project, according to details in the filings. His aide George Esparza said in one phone call that the councilman was going to “strong-arm everyone,” according to prosecutors.

The councilman also encouraged developers to hire the law firm where Richelle Huizar was paid approximately $5,000 per month, investigators said.

The ongoing federal investigation has already resulted in plea deals from Esparza, Chiang, political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim and former City Councilman Mitchell Englander. All have agreed to plead guilty, and federal filings have hinted that more is to come.

FBI agents also have been looking into other members of the Huizar family. In a 2018 search warrant, they sought bank records for Huizar’s mother and brother. Neither has been arrested or publicly charged with any crimes.

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Jose Huizar made his wife a prominent part of his campaigns for years. His campaign mailers have featured photos of the couple on their wedding day, sitting with their children in front of a Christmas tree, and posing together at a Halloween pumpkin patch. The couple have four children — three girls and a boy.

In 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti chose her to serve on a city commission focused on women’s issues. When she was appointed, Councilwoman Nury Martinez praised her as a “fighter, a champion and a warrior” on behalf of children, calling her a “good friend.”

"I can't think of anyone that has ever said anything bad about Richelle," said Samuel Robles, former principal of Bishop Mora Salesian High School, where Richelle Huizar worked from 2012 to 2016. "On the contrary, everything I've ever heard was positive — she's nice, she's smart. Everybody liked her."

Richelle Huizar ended her council campaign in November 2018, weeks after FBI agents searched the Huizars’ home and the councilman’s offices.

By then, former aides to the councilman had also filed lawsuits alleging that staffers were ordered to work on Richelle Huizar’s council bid during city time. They also alleged they were tasked with picking their kids up from school, raising money for the high school where she was employed as a paid fundraiser, and even moving her car to avoid a parking ticket on street sweeping days.

The councilman denied their allegations. Several claims in those lawsuits, including the allegations about campaigning on city time, have since been dismissed, said Linda Savitt, Huizar's lawyer. (Savitt has represented The Times in unrelated litigation.)

The federal corruption inquiry is posing only the latest test of the Huizars’ marriage. In 2013, a former Huizar aide sued the councilman alleging he sexually harassed her and retaliated against her for refusing his advances.

Huizar denied the allegations, saying instead that he had engaged in a consensual affair — one that had forced him to apologize to his wife. During the corruption probe, Esparza alleged that a Chinese developer helped Huizar secure a $570,000 loan to pay off the staffer in 2014 — allowing him to resolve the case in secret, according to his plea agreement.

In recent years, former Huizar staffers have alleged in court filings that the councilman engaged in an affair with another aide. Huizar has repeatedly called those allegations false.

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Richelle Huizar, originally known as Richelle Rios, grew up in Downey and went on to earn degrees at UC San Diego and UCLA Law School, according to a biography filed with the city. She began dating Jose Huizar while both were law students, according to a 2011 interview with "Political Sazón with Sylvia Robledo."

After they became a couple, they moved into a "small, little apartment" with a futon in the living room, the councilman told Robledo.

Richelle Huizar was hired to work at L.A.’s Commission on Children, Youth and Their Families in 1996, eventually rising to become its assistant executive director. Years later, while appearing before a council committee, she said her personal experiences — including being adopted as a child — propelled her to use her law degree to advocate for children.

"I'm raising three daughters here in Los Angeles, so I care deeply about the status of women and girls," she said. "I care about the future of my daughters and all the other daughters that are out there in Los Angeles."

Former L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who agreed to plead guilty in the ongoing federal corruption investigation.  (Los Angeles Times)

By 2006, Jose Huizar was on the council and their family was living in a newly renovated, nearly 3,000-square-foot Spanish Colonial home in Boyle Heights. She left her post at the commission that year and in 2007 secured a job with Vanderford & Ruiz, where she continued working for more than a decade.

Managing partners at Vanderford & Ruiz did not respond to requests for comment on Richelle Huizar, who has described herself as a consultant for the law firm.

In the federal corruption inquiry, prosecutors have alleged that Huizar repeatedly set up meetings to pressure developers with projects in his district to hire his wife's law firm, according to details in the filing.

One City Hall lobbyist, who is not involved in the FBI case, told The Times that Jose Huizar asked him at a breakfast meeting to refer potential clients to Vanderford & Ruiz. During that conversation, Huizar made clear that his wife worked for the firm and would benefit from the additional business, said the lobbyist, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to discuss the meeting.

"I said, 'Yes, of course I will do that,'" the lobbyist said. "There's no other answer you can give a councilman when he asks, 'Can you send business to my wife?'"

The lobbyist said he did not ultimately refer any business to the firm.

By 2012, Richelle Huizar was working as a paid fundraiser for Bishop Mora Salesian High School, the Catholic school in Boyle Heights that is her husband's alma mater. The Times reported in 2018 that companies with business before the councilman, many of them real estate developers, donated repeatedly to Salesian during the four years that his wife was employed by the school.

Jose Huizar repeatedly solicited the donations, according to documents and former staffers.

Salesian High became a sticking point with some Huizar aides. In one lawsuit, a former aide accused the councilman of improperly assigning staffers to work on Salesian's yearly fundraiser.

Legal and government experts said it would be questionable for an elected official to use his office staff to raise money for a charity that employed his wife as a fundraiser.

Jose Huizar denied many of the allegations in the lawsuits, saying in 2018 that they were part of a coordinated attack by former employees who have the same lawyer. Terrence Jones, an attorney for both aides, said he has negotiated a proposed $200,000 settlement in those cases.

Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.