Real estate developer in Huizar bribery case sentenced to six years in prison

A federal judge on Friday sentenced a downtown Los Angeles real estate developer to six years in prison for providing cash bribes to former City Councilmember Jose Huizar, then attempting to hide the transaction from investigators.

Dae Yong Lee, who also goes by David Lee, was found guilty last year of giving $500,000 in bribes in exchange for the approval of a 20-story residential tower on Olympic Boulevard and Hill Street. He was also convicted of wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

Lee, appearing before the judge, apologized for his actions, saying he had created “much pain and heartbreak” for his wife, his family and the people around him.

“Due to my greed and ambition, I did something I will regret for the rest of my life,” the Bel-Air resident told the court.

U.S. Dist. Court Judge John F. Walter said he took into account letters sent to the court from Lee’s family and supporters, particularly his wife’s characterization of him as “a good man who made a huge mistake.” But Walter said Lee’s crimes — bribing an elected official and then ordering a subordinate to falsify his company’s internal record of that transaction — merited a sentence that would serve as “a warning to others.”

“The court must send a message to discourage others who are in similar situations from engaging in similar crimes,” he said.

Lee, the first figure in the Huizar scandal to go on trial, was also ordered to pay a $750,000 financial penalty. His development company, 940 Hill, was separately sentenced to five years of probation and fined $1.5 million.

The case against Lee and 940 Hill was among the more sensational of the schemes spelled out in the federal indictment of Huizar, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and tax evasion charges earlier this year. During Lee’s trial, a former Huizar aide testified that he twice picked up paper bags of cash from a consultant working for Lee, saying the money was intended for Huizar and distributed in stacks of $100 bills.

George Esparza, who worked as Huizar’s special assistant, described during the trial how, at one point, he delivered $100,000 in a Don Julio tequila box to the council member’s Boyle Heights home in 2017.

A Don Julio tequila box filled with cash

A onetime aide to former City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who testified last year in the trial of businessman Dae Yong Lee, admitted delivering a Don Julio tequila box filled with cash to his boss’ home.

(U.S. District Court)

Esparza, who later pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge, took copious notes on his criminal activities, at one point writing the words “Giving cash to CM Huizar 2/10/2017” on a napkin. He then photographed the napkin.

Huizar, who served on the council from 2005 to 2020, is scheduled to be sentenced in December. Esparza, who is also awaiting sentencing, may still be called as a witness in an upcoming trial stemming from the Huizar case.

Prosecutors had asked for Lee to be sentenced to seven years in prison, saying it would dissuade others from engaging in political corruption. In their filing, they repeatedly highlighted Lee’s wealth, saying he “enjoyed a lavish lifestyle” and had extensive real estate holdings.

In 2015, Lee proposed the construction of a $170-million high-rise a few blocks east of the L.A. Live entertainment complex. His project soon drew opposition from a group of construction trade unions, which threatened to slow or halt the approval process for his project, adding millions in additional development costs.

Lee agreed to provide Huizar, who represented much of downtown and wielded enormous power over real estate decisions, a cash bribe to ensure that the council member would oppose the union challenge, prosecutors said.

“He wasn’t under financial pressure, like some people are,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Cassie Palmer. “He had a lot of money and wanted more.”

Attorneys for Lee requested leniency, asking for a 20-month sentence. Lee’s devotion to his family, his friends and his faith all warranted a lower sentence, his lawyers said.

“The limited window of conduct that was presented at trial does not accurately reflect the hardworking, honest person that he has been in all other aspects of his life,” wrote Lee’s attorney, Ariel A. Neuman.

During Friday’s hearing, Neuman objected to the prosecution’s repeated focus on his client’s wealth. He also argued that Lee was receiving disparate treatment when compared to Huizar, who has admitted responsibility for a much greater amount of criminal activity.

Huizar reached a plea agreement earlier this year in which prosecutors agreed not to seek more than 13 years in prison. Walter, the federal judge, told the defense lawyer he will not be bound to that agreement when he issues his sentence.

Huizar is one of several high-profile figures at City Hall to face criminal charges in recent years. Former City Councilmember Mitchell Englander, who stepped down in 2018, pleaded guilty three years ago to providing false information to investigators, which resulted in a 14-month prison sentence.

Former City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted earlier this year on conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges and is awaiting sentencing. Meanwhile, Councilmember Curren Price is fighting perjury, embezzlement and conflict-of-interest charges, which were filed by the district attorney’s office earlier this year.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Mack Jenkins said he hoped that Lee’s sentence would serve as a deterrent to political corruption. He pointed out the judge’s sentence was nearly four times longer than the one sought by Lee.

“We think future criminals will take note of that,” he said.

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