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The scourge of corruption across Southern California

There are few things that please me more as a journalist than seeing a politician, political operative or public official convicted of corruption.

“Another one bites the dust,” I think, as a vivid fireworks show goes off in my head. It’s what’s called schadenfreude, “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”

I know, it’s probably not the healthiest of responses. But recent months have delivered a steady stream of joy to me personally.

The recent guilty plea of former Los Angeles Councilman José Huizar is particularly satisfying. On the one hand, I identify with Huizar. We both have family roots in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, we’re the sons of machinist fathers and were the first in our family to go to college.

Huizar had it all. He’s well-educated, with a law degree from UCLA and a master’s in public policy from Princeton University. He has a family. And for 15 years, he had a cush gig as an overpaid member of the Los Angeles City Council, with the sort of six-figure income most people in his home state of Zacatecas can only dream of.

And yet it wasn’t enough for Huizar. According to a January press release from the feds, “Huizar admitted to leading the [Council District 14] Enterprise, which operated as a pay-to-play scheme in which Huizar — assisted by others — unlawfully used his office to give favorable treatment to real estate developers who financed and facilitated bribes and other illicit financial benefits.”

They continue, “Specifically, Huizar and other city officials demanded and accepted cash bribes, casino gambling chips, prostitution and escort services, political contributions, flights on private jets and commercial airlines, stays at luxury hotels and casinos, expensive meals, tickets to concerts and sporting events, and other benefits.”

He abused his status as a big city politician and chair of the city’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee so he could live like a bigshot for a few years, when, in the end he was just another dirtbag politician. Huizar brought others down with him, including his brother, who of course had to be named Salvador, but also George Esparza, his former special assistant, consultant George Chiang, political fundraiser Justin Jangwoo Kim and lobbyist Morrie Goldman. Good riddance to them all.

Former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, who has been linked to the bunch, is awaiting trial this year.

And of course, Huizar is not alone. There are people with similar self-serving impulses throughout government. Most are just content with comfortable, overcompensated positions and the prospect of cashing out as a consultant or useless appointee to a board of directors someday — or playing their games up the food chain to higher office, where their egos can be better fed and they can dole out more goodies.

They play the soft corruption game — for more on that, check out the commentaries of John Seiler, Susan Shelley and Matt Fleming in this section — knowing they will get away with it. For all of the screeching we hear about the importance of democracy in America, few actually pay attention to state and local government, despite all the money and power at their collective disposal. Politicians and special interests know this.

But many politicians, political operatives and government officials get sloppy, overextend themselves, and end up arrested.

Mitch Englander

Before Huizar, there was his City Council colleague Mitch Englander, who represented a portion of the San Fernando Valley from 2011 to 2018. Englander was indicted in 2020 and eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction. “Englander schemed to cover up cash payments, expensive meals, escort services and other gifts offered to him from an individual identified as Businessperson A, who sought to increase his business opportunities in the city,” the Department of Justice reported.

Evidently, Los Angeles councilmembers can’t figure out how to eat well, make money or get laid on their own.

Ricardo Pacheco

I admit to somehow missing this as it was unfolding, but I enjoyed it when I discovered it. Over in Baldwin Park, Councilman Ricardo Pacheco was keeping himself busy.

First elected to the council in 1997 and eventually serving as mayor pro tempore in 2018, this public servant pleaded guilty in 2021 “to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes — including $20,000 in cash — from a Baldwin Park Police officer working at the FBI’s direction, in exchange for the councilmember’s political support of the Baldwin Park Police Association’s contract with the city,” according to the Department of Justice.

In total, he solicited and accepted $37,900 in bribes to vote for the $4.4 million police union contract. He reportedly kept $62,900 in cash buried on his property. What a guy.

Pacheco was also involved in a cannabis scheme with former San Bernardino County Planning Commissioner Gabriel Chavez in which Chavez agreed to funnel money through one of his companies to bribe Pacheco so Pacheco could exert influence over his city’s pot policies.

The Anaheim cabal

I’d be lying if I said I was surprised at the news last year that a “cabal” of influence peddlers were under federal investigation in Anaheim.

“Listening in via wiretaps and intercepting emails since 2019, Special Agent Adkins alleges a picture emerged of a small group of business and political figures, with [Anaheim Chamber of Commerce leader Todd] Ament and an unnamed political consultant as its ring leaders, that was exerting influence on city policies and actions,” reported the Orange County Register in May 2022. “Ament wasn’t on the city’s payroll, but [Anaheim Mayor Harry] Sidhu treated him as a close advisor and he was a frequent visitor at City Hall, several people interviewed said.”

Ament would eventually plead guilty to fraud charges.

Helping to provide evidence against Ament was Melahat Rafiei, who served as secretary of the California Democratic Party and was a member of the Democratic National Committee. Rafiei would plead guilty in Jan. 2023 to attempted wire fraud “for attempting to defraud one of her political consultancy firm’s clients.” She also admitted to agreeing to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council on cannabis-related matters.

Amid all of this, Harry Sidhu resigned last year after the affidavit submitted by Special Agent Adkins referenced alleged wiretap recordings of Sidhu indicating he expected $1 million in campaign support in return for his steering of the now-voided sale of Angel Stadium. He hasn’t been charged, but the resignation of Sidhu, a champion of crony capitalism as a council member, was a fitting end to his political career.

Eradicating corruption

Again, these are just some of the people who’ve been caught for confirmed or alleged criminal offenses.

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Other politicians and political officials are awaiting trial — including former Los Angeles County Supervisor and comically current Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, former state Sen. Frank Hill and former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.

But we can’t forget the soft corruption all around our politics. Special interest groups that spend big to get their cronies elected to help them from position of power — whether it’s a business group or a union, Big Business or Big Labor — corrupt our systems of government, lawmaking and accountability as well and in more meaningful ways than the petty corruption of a Huizar or Englander.

The scourge of corruption will prevail as long as people think they can get away with it. We must all do our part to say, “Enough.”

Sal Rodriguez can be reached at salrodriguez@scng.com

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