A senior aide to former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar gave jurors a lively look at the pay-to-play schemes allegedly pursued by his boss, describing paper bags filled with bribes and demands for concert tickets and other gifts. .
George Esparza, who appeared Friday in the first of three lawsuits over the Huizar case, told jurors that he participated in two “money drops” in 2017, collecting cash from a developer’s middleman and then putting the money in liquor chests — all while taking extensive notes about his own criminal activities.
Esparza, who worked as a special assistant to the councilor for several years, said his boss had instructed him to find the contact person for every real estate developer who had business before Huizar, then approach them for political donations, hotel stays, tickets to events or other benefits.
At the time, Huizar was in charge of the committee that assesses real estate proposals at the city hall. As a result, he had the power to keep a development project off the agenda — causing delays and driving up construction costs — if he concluded the developer hadn’t responded, Esparza said.
“I’ve learned to be very clear about what the message was,” Esparza said. “If you don’t help the alderman with his requests, your project will come to a standstill.”
Esparza, 35, began testifying on Day 4 of the federal trial of Dae Yong Lee, a businessman accused of paying $500,000 in bribes to secure Huizar’s support for his planned 20-story residential tower. Lee, also known as David Lee, pleaded not guilty to bribery, telegram fraud and obstruction of justice.
Huizar, who stepped down from the council two years ago, pleaded not guilty to bribery, extortion and other charges. His lawyers had no comment on Esparza’s comments.
Lee’s attorneys have described their client as the victim of a real estate consultant who repeatedly lied to him and FBI agents. Lee, they said, believed he would pay $500,000 for legitimate consulting work — not bribes for government officials.
Friday’s testimony offered Esparza’s first public statements since 2020, the year he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the sprawling federal corruption case. Esparza admitted to participating in a criminal enterprise in which he received a range of financial benefits — cash, casino chips, golf clubs, hotel stays, private jet travel — from people seeking help with high-rise projects or other business pursuits.
Esparza said Huizar maintained an internal spreadsheet that tracked development projects, their consultants, and “what was the demand.” The councilor spoke harshly of his demands, saying he wanted to see if the “cows are willing to give milk,” the former assistant said.
“He would say, ‘Okay, hit these guys,'” Esparza said. “‘Let’s see if they’re willing to play.'”
Esparza, who grew up in Boyle Heights, said his dream was to work for Huizar, who he described as a friend of his family. He said he was Huizar’s driver and ‘trusted confidant’, collecting him from his house in the morning and dropping him off late at night.
During three hours of testimony, Esparza explained what he described as an attempt by Huizar to squeeze money out of Lee, who needed the councilman’s help with his plan for a 232-unit high-rise on Olympic Boulevard. Lee’s project received initial approval from the planning department in July 2016. But weeks later, a union group filed a challenge, raising the possibility that fate would be decided by the council.
Justin Kim, a real estate consultant then working for Lee, asked Huizar for help getting rid of the challenge, which had been filed by Creed LA, a group that represents construction unions, and is lobbying officials to ensure real estate projects are built with unionized work.
Kim, a fundraiser for Huizar, was a political friend of the agency, Esparza said. But the councilor was also close to organized labor, making Kim’s request a “tough lift,” the former aide said.
Esparza said he had informed Kim that “the councilor will not do this for free”.
Esparza said he took Huizar to a dinner meeting with Kim to discuss the union challenge in September 2016, followed by a karaoke party with “escort” services, attended by Lee. Huizar was “definitely at a good height” on the drive home, Esparza said.
“Nothing made him happier than money and women,” he said.
In January 2017, Esparza said, Huizar instructed him to contact real estate experts to determine how much Lee would save if the union profession were to disappear. Esparza concluded that the answer was $30 million.
Esparza said Huizar then came up with a proposal: To make the appeal go away, Lee would have to pay $1.2 million, which would be distributed in three ways: $500,000 for Huizar, $500,000 for Kim, and $200,000 for Esparza.
Lee eventually came back with a $500,000 counter-offer, Esparza said. Huizar accepted and promised Esparza a $100,000 cut, the former assistant said.
Esparza said he picked up his first bag of cash from Kim in February 2017 and delivered $100,000 to Huizar in a Don Julio tequila box. Huizar told him to take the money home and keep it in a safe, Esparza said.
Huizar met with a lobbyist for Creed LA later that month, Esparza said. In March 2017, Creed LA had its appeal withdrawn.
Read more about politics in LA
In this pivotal election year, we’ll split the vote and tell you why it matters in our LA on the Record newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Esparza told the judges that he collected a second paper bag of money that same month and delivered it to Huizar in a Johnnie Walker Blue Label box. Huizar again told him to keep the money at home, Esparza said.
Esparza said he took extensive notes on the proposals and counter-proposals, while also snapping photos of the stacks of $100 bills he collected. The former aide said he did so because he was nervous that Huizar would pin the plan on him if the FBI went overboard.
“Knowing my boss, I knew I would be the cheater,” he said.
Esparza has not yet been convicted in the case. Neither did Kim, who pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge in 2020.
Ariel Neuman, a lawyer for Lee, will be given the opportunity to question Esparza on Tuesday. At the trial, he accused the prosecution of giving Kim a “sweetheart deal” that allowed him to avoid charges for a number of crimes. In court files, Lee’s lawyers also targeted Esparza’s credibility.
“Esparza is a convicted felon who admitted in his plea deal that he lied to the FBI on at least five separate cases,” they wrote in a recent file.