Real estate firm owned by Chinese billionaire found guilty of paying $1M in bribes to LA councilman

The bribes were for approval of the redevelopment of a 77-story skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles

Published: November 11, 2022 6:11pm

Updated: November 11, 2022 6:27pm

A real estate firm in Los Angeles owned by a Chinese billionaire was found guilty of paying a city councilman more than $1 million in bribes to approve a skyscraper downtown. 

On Thursday, a jury found Shen Zhen New World I, a real estate firm owned by Chinese billionaire Wei Huang, guilty after less than three hours of deliberation. The charges included “three counts of honest service wire fraud, four counts of interstate and foreign travel in aid of bribery, and one count of bribery,” according to the Justice Department

The L.A. Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was purchased by Shen Zhen in 2010 on behalf of its owner, Wei. At the time, then-LA councilman José Huizar represented the district that the building was in and chaired the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which oversaw the city’s major commercial and residential development projects. 

The bribes were an effort to get Huizar to approve the redevelopment of a 77-story skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles, which “would have been the tallest such structure west of the Mississippi River,” according to the DOJ. 

The bribery campaign occurred from 2013 through 2018, which both Huizar and his aide, George Esparza, benefited from. The bribes included “cash, casino gambling chips, flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxury Las Vegas hotels and casinos, expensive meals, spa services, prostitution services, political contributions, and a $600,000 collateral for Huizar to confidentially settle a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against Huizar by a former staffer that threatened his career,” the Justice Department said in a statement. 

Nine defendants in the case have been convicted, and federal prosecutors have received over $3 million in criminal penalties for resolution of their investigation into two other major real estate development companies resulting from Operation “Casino Loyale.” The operation, conducted by both the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, is an ongoing corruption investigation into Los Angeles City Hall. 

Shen Zhen is expected to face a multi-million dollar fine in a January sentencing hearing. Huizar was arrested in 2020 and has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy and multiple bribery counts. His trial is set for February. 

Wei is a fugitive believed to be in China. 

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